Bryan Wandel: The pendular swings in the Republican nominating contest have proved that media can continue to accelerate infinitely.
A series of town hall debates – that could be the key to victory. If only John McCain could persuade Barack Obama to make himself vulnerable to everyday Americans, in front of everyday Americans, McCain’s supposed wit would upend the upstart’s supposed scriptedness.
Those informal debates never happened, but the Republican Party kept that idea close to its vest for three years. In the meantime, the Tea Party movement exploded in large part due to abrasive counterattacks by citizens at healthcare town hall meetings in August 2009. The victory in 2010 midterms made it clear that Republicans needed to speak not only for the average middle-class American, but appear to actually be in dialogue with them.
Thus was born the frenetic debate schedule for the 2012 Republican pre-primary. While the town hall style was made impossible by the number of politicians on stage, the GOP saw clearly that close contact with the American public needed to be a part of their platform. One method was through the television screen.
It’s no news that media is a powerful piece of politics. But live politics is the new medium in the 2012 campaign. TV ads, interviews, and email lists have all added kindling to the media fire in the past – but the media consumes in increasing quantities. If 2004 was the year Howard Dean introduced internet fundraising, and 2008 was campaign social networking, 2012 is only increasing that pace. 2008 was the Facebook Election. 2012 is the Twitter Election.
Rick Perry entered the Republican contest in August to much of the usual fanfare. The storyline was that he was filling an excitement void, or completing the missing base/party-insider connection. After failing to wow the crowd in the first few debates, it was not unusual that Perry’s poll numbers would stabilize. But the storyline was written entirely according to the media face-time presence of the debates: Rick Perry did not just fail to garner support – he failed at the debates.
In reality, nobody really did great. But a continuous stream of unscripted public appearances became media gold, and each one required a storyline, hopefully damning a candidate in the process if there was none to enthrone.
Both Herman Cain’s and Newt Gingrich’s rapid ascents have been attributed to well-timed zingers on the debate stage. In reality, each was relegated to a few minutes in one of these appearances before the spotlight really shown down on them. I don’t think a media-centered analysis can reveal why these candidates surged, but for each, the type of surge was engraved very quickly – it was due to a silver tongue. Neither Cain nor Gingrich ever had time to catch up with the media surge to cement public opinion. They never understood that their rise came for the same reason as their fall. It was due to a storyline, built off of the live access of the debates. When they step on stage, candidates think they will deliver their message. But the medium is the message. This campaign has been increasingly out of the hands of the candidates as they give more of it to the media.
To repeat, media is nothing new in campaigns. Even 24/7 media is nothing new. But what is really important is not just the 24/7 news cycle (which can rarely fill itself) but the 24/7 status update.
Enter Rick Santorum, yesterday’s astounding near-winner in the Iowa caucuses. Again, the media analysis cannot uncover the reason for his bounce, and certainly refuses to discredit his tireless retail politicking. However, a 10-day skyrocket from 6th or 7th to 8 votes shy of 1st barely makes any sense. The perfect dovetail has been working, though, to combine the media’s ravenous appetite, the 140-character meme, and the live appearance campaign style through repeated debates. It’s a hypostatic union from hell.
Every media addition to politics has been able to trumpet increasing information and increasing visibility. This, some will claim, balances the downsides. But media does not merely transform the debate – it changes politics itself. Politics, at its core, is based on public identification of the public self. It is not just rule-making, but rule-making for the kind of people we are, or to make us the kind of people we want to be. The increasing pervasion of reporting, sound-bytes, and storylines is expanding our collective ADD rather than informing our decisions. The candidate access we are being fed is reflexively whetting our desire for the kind of access that stresses our identification with a candidate rather than our identification with the polity.
Twitter is the problem. Politico is the problem. CNN is the problem. I want it – I am the problem. Please, if you live in one of the 49 states yet to vote, step outside tomorrow and take a gander down your street. Think about what might make it better, what it might look like if everyone really cared – even it seems like you are dreaming a perfect world. Then, when you have 10 things on your list, do 9 of them, and vote for the candidate who you will help you accomplish the 10th. That’s politics.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.