Looking at a typical day's media coverage of the presidential campaign season is a bit like watching kickboxing. Lots of testosterone -- all aimed at destroying opponents. There is nothing wrong with testosterone, of course. Campaigning for the presidency seems to call forth and thrive on it. But that's not all it calls forth, though you could be forgiven for not realizing this after watching, reading or listening to campaign coverage.
The language in which we are told about political campaigns (starting with that word itself) is decidedly male, often militaristic. The coverage of the presidential electoral season is about primary fights, war chests, electoral contests, attack ads, battleground states, front runners, victories and defeats. Candidates are shown projecting power (or lacking it) and trying to dominate issues, events and opponents through verbal attacks. On many issues of the day, they figuratively come out swinging, taking positions that brook no compromise. Increase taxes? Hell no. Revise Medicare? Don't even think of it. Worried about Iran? Attack their nuclear sites. Concerned about Korea? Threaten military action. Frustrated with illegal immigrants? Round them up and deport them. Want to balance the budget? Tax the rich? Don't like the health care mandate? Repeal the law.
The media dutifully record each declaration and attack, either convinced that the public is too uninterested or lacks the sophistication for more in-depth coverage that might illuminate the thinking (or lack of it) behind candidate assertions. The emotions shown in the media's focus on the political testosterone surge are most often negative: agitation, disgust, fury, defensiveness, discontent, inflexibility. An already dissatisfied electorate seems to get even angrier.
We all pay a price for this when the voting is finally over. Campaigning, media coverage would have us believe, thrives on creating differences. There is clearly much truth in this. But governing, in the end, succeeds when it fosters agreement. Yet we don't learn much about the candidates' abilities to do this through media coverage of campaigns.
It's not that governing never needs argument and strong-armed tactics. It's just that they are not enough. Governing requires other behaviors -- open communication, building relationships, compromise and collaboration. And to govern, it helps to call forth some positive emotions -- hope, acceptance, balance, connectedness, flexibility and warmth. Yet, following the media's coverage of campaigns, you learn little about the candidate's capabilities to use these critical governing skills or create such positive emotions.
Because of this flaw in how the media reports on campaigns we are hard pressed to see, for example, whether and how candidates, earlier in their careers, have learned about and built networks with people whose views cut across the political spectrum. We do not hear about how they have assembled staffs and organized in their public or private ventures, information that might shed much useful light on their executive abilities. Nor do we hear much about how they have used compromise in running their campaigns or collaboration in their public roles -- also key indicators of their ability to govern, not just campaign. Nor do we hear about when -- and if -- they exercise moral courage by taking unpopular positions or confronting those whose views they abhor, also key measures of the ability to lead a nation not just a campaign.
To a considerable degree, we have ourselves to blame, not just the media. It's the schizophrenia of American politics that we seem to want our candidates to be kick-ass politicians and then chide our elected leaders because they cannot collaborate to get things done. Until we demand both sets of skills -- and until the media do a better job of showing us who has them -- we are likely to enjoy the boxing match but be dissatisfied when that the contenders are not able to perform very well once outside the ring.