Author: Nick Clyde, Johns Hopkins
American politics has deteriorated into a fatuous, imbecilic show. Don’t believe me? Check out the latest campaign ad from the Grand Old Party. Disguising their advertisements as reality shows in order to get peoples’ attention, politicians seem to consider the general public to be stupid and disinterested in politics. In fact, this trend is so strong that the ad was used not just for one candidate, but three. As citizens, we should feel insulted. Keep in mind: this is not unique to the GOP. Both parties take part in this asinine “political discourse.” Politics in America has devolved into a weird, childish bravado in which two political parties constantly try to one up each other. As the substantive differences between the two parties continue to evaporate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for campaign strategists to find effective ways to make their candidates stand out. Unfortunately, these strategists’ new tactics new are only accelerating America’s devolution into idiocy.
It wasn’t always like this; America used to be the model of representative democracy for the world. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker who toured America around 1831, extolled the U.S. model of democracy. At the time, U.S. culture nurtured widespread political discussion: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it,” de Tocqueville wrote in his influential work Democracy in America. In the nineteenth century, before the advent of television and radio, citizens took part in the political process by holding large town meetings and engaging in reasoned debate with others. In 1854, Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas held a debate in Peoria, Illinois over the merits of slavery. This was not a debate held for campaign purposes; Lincoln simply accepted the invitation to debate because he disapproved of Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. At the debate, “Douglas received an enthusiastic welcome and spoke from 2 until 5 that Monday afternoon before turning the Court House platform to Lincoln. Suggesting a break for dinner, Lincoln resumed speaking at 7 p.m., with final remarks by Douglas after 9 p.m.”
An event such as this is almost unfathomable in today’s political climate. Contemporary presidential debates do indeed draw large audiences, but their speeches last little more than 90 minutes. Debates held for lower offices or just for the sake of discussion are pretty much unheard of. More worrying than the length of these debates, though, is the content. While the Peoria debate mentioned above consisted of long, well-reasoned speeches and rebuttals on a single topic, the first presidential debate in 2012 consisted of six 15-minute question segments, where each candidate only got a few minutes each to try to lay out their position on a myriad of topics. Because of this watered down debate structure, candidates often make bold, emotionally appealing promises that are never fulfilled rather than formulate a nuanced response backed by reason. But the debates haven’t just been watered down, they’ve been dumbed down, too. When put up against a standard vocabulary test, it was found that during the Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates of 1858, Lincoln spoke at an eleventh-grade reading level, while Douglas spoke at a twelfth-grade level. These levels have been steadily declining ever since: “In 1992, challenger Bill Clinton scored in the seventh grade (7.6), President George Bush in the sixth grade (6.8), and Ross Perot at a sixth-grade level (6.3).”
This political puerility is most conspicuous in campaign television advertisements. As Neil Postman notes in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, television as a media format encourages small segments of content consisting mainly of a barrage of disconnected images. Long discussions or debates where politicians lay out reasoned arguments are not conducive to television; as anyone can tell you, C-SPAN doesn’t exactly make for the most thrilling viewing experience. Therefore, it was only natural that when Eisenhower aired some of the first political ads in 1952, they were only twenty seconds long. This seems harmless, but when you consider that political ads have increasingly become the ordinary citizen’s primary source of information about candidates and the political process in general, it gets frightening. It gets even scarier when you realize that there are almost no regulations on political advertisements. Though there have been many congressional attempts to reformulate the laws regarding campaign finance, all have failed. In addition, a recent Supreme Court ruling has essentially allowed any corporation to give unlimited funding for campaign ads. Finally, there are no laws prohibiting candidates from telling lies in their ads. All of this creates an environment in which the average citizen’s political views are based on a 30-second spoof of a popular wedding dress-selection reality show or a candidate declaring that she’s better than the other at skeet shooting.
Tocqueville was rather prescient about all this. He feared that America could easily slip into a kind of “soft despotism,” where citizens have the illusion of control over the political process, when in reality it is dominated by other forces. He writes:
“After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
The stupefaction of America is nearly complete. If we do not recapture the political process by refusing to elect candidates who use such patronizing advertisements, if we do not implement serious reform of campaign finance and political advertising, if we do not make any attempt to make our voices heard, then we lose control of the democratic system. The golden age of American democracy is long dead; rebuilding a democratic foundation for society requires us to take a hard look at the forces and power structures that define our political process and to dismantle them, once and for all.