POLITICS AND POPULARITY

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Garske 3Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Harvard University


There began to be a change in the atmosphere of American politics during the early decades of the twentieth century. It was a time when new modes of communication and
entertainment, including moving pictures and radio, were beginning to transform the methods by which political campaigns were waged.

Until that time election contests were determined almost exclusively by local canvassing, speech making and especially by circulation of the printed word through newspapers, journals and broadsides. Print was a medium useful for reproducing lengthy texts, such as extended announcements and transcribed speeches. In important ways it was also a medium that encouraged detached and sober analysis by the reading public.

However, by the 1930’s new forms of mass communication began to change those practices. A new paradigm had been introduced into politics that had not been seen before. It emphasized the importance of personality and appeal, especially of appearance, manner and speech. At that time requirements for a political success came to resemble the theatrical talents necessary for a career in the movies or in radio broadcasting.

On a national scale the first great beneficiary of this change was, of course, FDR. His aristocratic demeanor, elegant dress and faculty for the memorable phrase made him a natural fit for the new media. In fact, no propagation of political views would ever surpass the influence of his famous “fireside chats”, broadcast weekly over the radio during the Great Depression.

Twenty years later, in the 1950’s, this realignment of the political campaign into a strategy of personal appeal continued with the election of Eisenhower to the presidency. It could be seen in his slogan, “I like Ike”, and especially in the importance of his famous smile as a decisive factor in his victory. Most of all, his campaign had underscored the astonishing impact of the new medium of television.

However, it was JFK who was able to exploit the use of television as a political weapon to its fullest potential. He was not merely handsome and eloquent, his personal charm and acute sense of humor were perfectly suited for broadcast. Kennedy, with a wife who combined beauty and refinement, could easily be portrayed over the national networks as a kind of American royalty in a political Camelot.

In reviewing these brief examples of the shifting basis of politics from the printed to the electronic, from the reflective to the popular, from substance to form there is no intent to impugn the quality and effectiveness of any of these men who served as president. Nor is it in any way an argument against technical advances in communication, nor their usefulness in the conduct of public affairs.

Yet, the changes have brought both benefits and costs. Politicians, after all, operate in an environment they have not created. There has without doubt developed a necessity to place appearance ahead of reality. In fact, it seems unlikely that any office seeker can succeed in the present environment without giving first priority to a favorable and transmittable media image. That is just the way things are.

Viewed from this perspective no one could deny that our current president is a man of impressive gifts. Yet, it may be possible that his most obvious traits—his appearance, his eloquence, the ability to express a collective aspiration—may serve to obscure virtues of a more substantial type. If this is true it may be true because the American political system will not allow a president to act in any other way.

Presidential politics has become very much public theater. As such, it seems inevitable that the person who fills that office will have a great affinity with actors, musicians and stars of professional sport. It seems only natural that such a person would be most comfortable in the orbit of the celebrity rich.

By contrast it seems less likely he would find rapport with those who live a more prosaic existence. For example, those who instruct the young, those who meet a payroll, those who treat the infirm, or those who fight on the embattled fronts in Iraq or Afghanistan. Such mundane persons represent a specter, a reality, far removed from the unrelenting quest for popularity that has come to define American politics today.

To the extent this is true it may also be true that the answers to America’s problems will not be solved in the political realm—because its politics have become merely symptomatic of more profound maladies. Thus, instead of castigating a president for being servile to the most recent approval ratings and popularity polls, or for his attitude of “”all politics, all the time”, it may be necessary to look deeper.

Instead of hoping for political solutions to the problems of our country, we might begin to examine the electoral process itself. Perhaps with some adjustment new possibilities could be discovered. Then the president—whoever holds the office—will not be bound by the constraints of a stage actor whose performance is gauged by the applause of an audience. Instead, he or she might be able to take measures that are less calculated to be theatrical and pleasing are more considered to be substantial and sound.

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