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Steven Cohen

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The Limits to Political Spin

Posted: 04/23/2012 8:20 am

I am fortunate to live in two homes. One we rent from Columbia University in Morningside Heights, on the west side of Manhattan. The other, my wife and I own in Long Beach, New York, a small city on the south shore of Long Island. I love both places, but realize that Long Beach is more like the rest of America than Manhattan is. Still, I know that neither is typical of Middle America because Long Beach is a lot like Flatlands, Brooklyn, the neighborhood I grew up in. And neither Long Beach nor Brooklyn is very much like Franklin, Indiana, where I attended College. Franklin, 30 miles south of Indianapolis is the quintessential Middle American community. When I arrived there in 1970, as a 17-year-old city kid, I learned how little I really knew about the country of my birth.

I am sharing all this personal geography because when I try to project the presidential politics of 2012, I can't help but think about my neighbors in all of those places. I wonder what they must think about this reality TV show we call presidential politics. It is hard to figure out who is a typical American and what is a typical American community. Barack Obama is our first African-American President who happens to be a graduate of Columbia College and Harvard Law School. Mitt Romney is a former Massachusetts Governor and a Mormon millionaire whose father ran an auto company and was once Governor of the state of Michigan. Mitt is also a Harvard graduate -- of their world-famous Business School. Both Romney and Obama are ambitious and both are moderates by temperament, if not by politics. Neither is an average or typical guy, but except for Gerry Ford, what U.S. President could ever be called typical? The American Presidency is not a job for a "regular guy."

The season of political spin is now underway in earnest. Obama's folks are working overtime to remind independents about Mitt's primary pandering right-wing rhetoric. Mitt's minions are trying to blame the deficit and economic meltdown fueled by Bush's tax and war policies on Obama, and Sarah Palin is trying to blame the Secret Service's fondness for Colombian prostitutes on the president's management skills.

National polls show the race is neck and neck, political fundraising is setting new records, and no one really knows how all of this is going to turn out. It is clear that the early action is on defining the candidates and fixing their image in America's mindset. How will all this posturing play to the American electorate? The effectiveness of spin and image projection is genuinely scary at times. Misinformation and distortion are spread in direct proportion to the amount of political money that has been raised and is available to buy media time. Newt saw this in Iowa when Mitt's paid advertising blew him out of the running for the Republican presidential nomination.

As little as I like Newt, Romney's destruction of his campaign was frightening and should scare everyone. One hopes that American values and common sense can resist such an obvious and self-serving onslaught of propaganda. The problem is that in our plugged-in media-driven world, all of us are online and tuned in so much that our sense of reality is driven by the messages directed to us by paid media. Even free media gets its sense of what messages are legitimate by the impact of paid media. It wasn't enough for Newt to perform well in debates. Those performances had to be translated into more than poll support, but into campaign dough, infrastructure and paid media.

It will soon turn out that the media onslaught promoting Mitt's nomination was like the roadshow before the main event opens on Broadway. We are already seeing both campaigns test themes and get prepared for the tidal wave of media we will all be saturated by this fall. From Labor Day to Election Day we will be subjected to an unprecedented amount of political messaging of every type. If you get tired of robo-calls at home wait until you see what a billion dollars of political advertising looks like.

Can my neighbors in Long Beach and Manhattan and the folks I remember from Brooklyn and Indiana resist this propaganda? Will a reaction set in that causes them to turn off all political messages? Americans tend to be quite apolitical and often apathetic. In their classic work, Voting, pioneering social scientists Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld and William McPhee examined political apathy and explained it in part as a result of satisfaction with the results of the political process. In essence, if an American's main concern is family, relationships with friends, and economic well-being, as long as that's going well, many Americans believe it is safe to ignore politics. In recent years Americans have started to see government as having more influence in their daily lives. Perhaps that will end, or at a minimum, perhaps the conflicting realities of opposing advertising campaigns will neutralize each other.

While both sides will make cartoon characters out of each other, it remains to be seen if real, deeply-held policy distinctions will emerge. There are of course major differences between the left and right on issues of social welfare, government regulation, economic development and national security. What is not clear is how far from the political center either of these candidates really is. Obama ran to the left of Hilary Clinton during 2008 but once he was elected brought in establishment icons Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to run the economy. Mitt Romney campaigns against the new national health care law, but set up a similar path breaking program when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

It's hard to separate symbols from reality. Each candidate must mobilize his "base" and motivate them to come to the polls. But each must also appeal to the growing number of centrist independents who are less political and less ideological than the Republican and Democratic "base." In the end, I would not underestimate the potential for Americans to simply turn off the 2012 election. My neighbors in Manhattan and Long Beach seem to be losing patience with the BS and the lies. I can't imagine that Brooklynites or Hoosiers are any more tolerant of political incivility. While I haven't lived in Indiana for nearly four decades, I lived there during Watergate and Richard Nixon's resignation. In 1972, Indiana's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives included 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats. After the 1974 Watergate dominated elections, the delegation had 9 Democrats and only 2 Republicans. The angry Hoosiers tossed out the party they believed had deceived them. Deception and lies are disliked in Indiana, and don't do much better in Brooklyn, Manhattan or Long Beach.

The intensity and negativity of American political media will eventually generate a reaction from the American public. I think there are limits to spin and we may find out what those limits look like later this year.

 

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