Any student of American political history knows that the level of political conflict in 2012 is nowhere near the most intense we have ever experienced. You might recall that following the election of 1860 we had a long and violent Civil War. In fact, Yale historian Joanne Freeman is writing an entire book about violence in Congress, The Field of Blood: Congressional Violence in Antebellum America. According to Professor Freeman:
In the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them. During one 1836 melee in the House, a witness observed representatives with "pistols in hand.
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are relatively mellow when compared to those folks. Given the advances in the technology of destruction, there are very good reasons for taking the violence out of American political conflict. However, while the rules of the American political game have delegitimized physical violence, they have encouraged the massive magnification of the written and spoken word. The average person is bombarded with a relentless barrage of political communication. TV, the web, direct mail, and radio are filled with political information and misinformation. Billionaires are spending millions of dollars to get the word out; and out; and out some more.
This verbal violence is most notable for its essential failure to actually polarize American politics. Most Americans do not really care about politics. As April begins and the Republican presidential reality TV show begins to wind down, we see two relatively moderate political candidates emerging as the relatively unenthusiastic choices of their respective political parties. President Obama is of course not the socialist third-world radical painted by the Republican Right Wing. Any close examination of his policies, from defense to taxation, presents a center-left Democrat more like Bill Clinton than Fidel Castro. And as much as Mitt Romney wants to deny it, he is a center-right Republican closer to George H.W. Bush than to Ronnie Reagan. Romney is a managerial technocrat, and Obama is a legal policy wonk: both are products of Harvard -- one law, the other business. Both of these candidates, like most Americans, are political moderates.
What will the media do with these fellas? How can they possibly liven up this campaign so they can sell advertising and generate revenue from political ads? Never before have more people prayed for an exciting pennant race to make October fun and exciting. Actually, one needn't worry. The financial interests of the media and the political consulting industry will find a path to profits. The Super PACs are collecting donations at an impressive rate. Every time President Obama visits a city, he comes home with a few million dollars more in campaign cash. And like rivers flowing to the sea, that dough is going to roll downhill and will be spent on various forms of paid political media.
How will this boring political race in the moderate center be made more dramatic? It's pretty easy to predict. First there will be the horse race -- who is up and who is down in the polls. Any movement at all will become a major story. Second will be the "magnification of the minor." Some little issue that the candidates disagree over will be painted as a life and death struggle between alternative visions of America's future. Third, will be the gaffe or the faux pas: Obama's open microphone comment with the Russian about the missile shield. Romney's proposed $10,000 side bet with Rick Perry, or his beach house garage with auto elevators. Fourth will be the taped inconsistency or flip-flop -- almost inevitable in an age where everyone with a cell phone is a video producer. Politicians are not allowed to change their minds.
The media monster must be fed. Look, everyone's got to make a living, and I see no reason why the media shouldn't look out for itself -- but let's at least recognize this for what it is. In January I compared the Republican presidential race to a reality TV show and portrayed the proactive role played by the media. At that time I wrote:
Why do the media focus so much attention on the presidential campaign? Because people are interested, they will watch and read this stuff, and the demographics of this audience attract advertising. My suspicion is that some of the volatility of the process stems from the media's need for a storyline. A boring march to the nomination by "front-runner Mitt Romney" (I think that is his full name) is not good reality TV. We need drama, pathos, redemption, and deeply textured characters. We need Herman Cain and his mistress, Newt Gingrich and his comeback, Rick Santorum's persistence and Ron Paul's imitation of everyone's weird uncle.
Now the media has the challenge of spicing up the battle of the handsome moderates. At least they both look good on television; and they've got photogenic families too. The problem for Mitt is that he has taken all sorts of right-wing positions to win the nomination. Neither he nor the Republican Right really thinks he will act that way if he becomes president. (Shake that etch-a-sketch...) Similarly, President Obama became a very different president than the one he promised he would be when he campaigned in 2008. From the holding cells of Guantanamo to "post-partisan" politics, President Obama has found living in the White House a lot more complicated than campaigning for it.
But after the media tells us that the two candidates for president are both pragmatic centrists who sometimes can be misleading, what can they do to keep us awake for a 60 day, post-convention campaign? It is impossible to know what specific story line will capture our attention, but expect: the horserace, the magnification of the minor, the gaffe and the flip-flop. There will be viral videos on the web, repetitive TV images and sound bites, lots of paid media, and dramatic televised debates. Please stay tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Presidency Turns..."