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Thursday, August 11

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The Mechanics
« Well That's...Unexpected Follow the Results »

Elections Tue Feb 02 2010

Don't Listen to What It Means

Ah, Primary Day--campaign staffers, in a controlled panic, fly around the city and suburbs responding to every rumor and wild-eyed report, impulsively counting and re-counting their pluses against the reports from precincts. Every poorly trained election judge is suddenly a master criminal/ward boss. And as the polls close and precinct workers start pulling tape, the campaigns send feelers out to the media to try to get a jump on the narrative that will set the tone for the general election. I loose-tooth-love Primary Day.

My advice to you: don't listen when they tell you "what it means." This isn't a maudlin media-sky-is-falling lamentation. Just common sense. Politics has always had narrative elements to it. In the time of strong ideological movements and parties, the narrative was just less important. Nowadays, it is everything. And much of narrative politics is a pretension that media experts are telling you what "people" are thinking--and who "Americans" or "Illinoisans" or "Democrats" really are--when in reality they are just instructing you on how to think. Constant discussion of narratives--"Will Black voters be offended by the Harold Washington ads?"--generates the attitudes that people adopt. It is a positive feedback loop.

By using anecdotes and plausible sounding rationales for voter activity--buttressed by often specious exit polling--media opinion makers come up with a story for why things are happening that excludes every important factor, and treat elections as sort if islands of activity divorced from day-to-day reality.

Narrative politics relies on a small, rapidly-cycling media establishment. Our elections turn into brand competition and Election Day into sweeps week. Strange categories of people are created--"NASCAR dads"--that act as characters in the story, albeit flat characters with impossibly singular motivations. We want to "have a beer" with George Bush--what? What the hell does that even mean? I don't know about "real" Americans, but generally I've wanted to have beers with smart, pretty girls; not millionaire recovering alcoholics. Before the media began this "meme" about people wanting to have a beer with this guy, who was saying they preferred him because they wanted to have a beer with him? It was a categorical created by flacks that then became a justification, not vice-versa.

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My George W. Bush

But the most wonderful, representative product of this narrative manufacturing process came when GOP pollster Frank Luntz was accused of using actors for his TV focus groups that supposedly gave an insight into what "real Americans are thinking". It was a crystal clear moment that laid bare what much of the media establishment unwittingly does: not investigate root causes, but dictate story lines. Luntz is not interested in studying human behavior and attitudes, nor calibrating posturing to real-world impacts. Rather, in a consumption-focused society, he wants to sell you something, and the best way to sell people something is to convince them they need it.

It's not a GOP phenomenon. The Obama campaign was a masterful example of consumerism in politics, branded as a movement but sold as a product.

When they tell you that voters are angry, how will they jive that with the fact that probably 75% of registered voters won't bother voting? Does that sound like "voter anger" to you? Sounds like its opposite, actually: the opposite of anger, like love, is indifference.

Why do some specific individuals turn out to vote, and others don't? Why do some people hold on to those ward boss palm cards and others toss them as soon as they get in the polling place? Why, in the secrecy of the polling place, do people choose one name over another? What ultimately guides a person's decision making? The reasons are as varied as the individuals themselves, and macrotrends cannot reasonably be attributed solely to ephemeral narratives. If opinion makers had that much of a grasp of what makes people vote how they do--if they could drill down to that level and read our souls--every post-election broadcast would be focused on figuring out why huge majorities of Americans voted for no one at all.

This isn't to say there aren't analyses to be done of voting trends. Psephology is a legitimate field of study and trends can be analyzed at some basic level. What is problematic is the narrative being treated as material reality; that the election season stories, originating from media operations in the campaigns themselves, reflect concerns, tensions, and motivations of people, rather than public relations efforts meant to capitalize on ephemeral moods.

The dynamics that dictate how or whether people vote are deep and complex. As soon as somebody tries to tell you how a specific election has some grand implications about who we are or why we are, tune them out.

In 2006, Grover Norquist was hilariously predicting that "The Democratic Party is Toast"; in 2008, pundits were speculating as to what the party that would replace the Republicans--who, obviously, were going the way of the Whigs--would call themselves. The election opinion makers create the story then offers an interpretation of that same story, never accountable but always experts.

 
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