How The Media Seduced And Captured American Politics

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Nothing, perhaps, better illustrates today’s sharp cleavage with past electioneering than Rep. Millicent Fenwick’s 1982 campaign for the United States Senate seat from New Jersey. Now in her seventies, Fenwick grew up with the old politics. “I have a total amateur approach,” she told The New York Times , reflecting her traditional reliance on volunteer activity. But she reluctantly admitted to hiring a television consultant, studying polls, and submitting to the new fund-raising imperative. “I have never used a television person before, and all this professionalism is not happy-making, being packaged by professionals as though you were some new kind of invention like the splash-free valve on a faucet.” Yet soon Fenwick commercials began the “thematic” bombardment, polls suggested tactics, and fund raisers started scrambling. Ironically, she was defeated by a wealthy newcomer who had no reservations about television.

Reagan won with the smallest voter turnout in modern history.

Perhaps an even more telling gauge of the transformation of the political process was Theodore White’s bewilderment in covering the presidential election of 1980. Since 1960 he had been the country’s premier chronicler of the summit contests. Now, baffled by the new system, and nearly certain it signaled democracy’s decline, he left the campaign trail and went home to watch it all on television. Always the quintessential insider, he now felt himself irrelevant bric-a-brac from the age of Dwight Eisenhower. He decided, “I could sit at home and learn as much or more about the frame of the campaign as I could on the road.” But in fact, Teddy White, without knowing it, was still at the center of things: all the strategy, all the organization, converged on the screen in front of him, coaxing the voter’s acquiescence.

And the voters, more and more, choose to stay away. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory has been called the most decisive since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1932. Yet it drew the smallest voter turnout in modern history. Just over half the registered oters exercised their franchise that year, and fewer than 20 percent of adults over eighteen years of age gave the new President a “landslide.” This decline in registration and voting and the ascendance of the media is no temporal coincidence. Increasingly politics has become a spectator sport, with the public watching without participating. The candidate moves in front of the voters on film, while the continued publication of polls keeps him abreast of the latest standings. Election day thus becomes a time for ratification rather than decision. Today many just don’t bother. Worst of all, there are no signs that this trend will not continue. What if, someday, we give an election and no one comes?

THE MEDIA , of course, is not wholly responsible for this imperilment. The public’s disillusionment with politics and politicians is another cause, and it has happened before. The very size of the country and the aftereffects of the sixties’ turbulence among the young create an air of alienation, discouragement, and irrelevance. But the media revolution is truly that, and in some form it is here to stay. Yet it is not immune to change. The convention system replaced caucuses a century and a half ago. primaries replaced conventions in most states in this century; and amendments, court decisions, and congressional legislation have immensely widened voter eligibility. The process has adjusted to changing technology in printing and to the democratization of the telephone and radio. There is no reason why the media revolution can not also be made apt to democratic purposes. But that is the task of the generation that is growing up in it, not those who suffered the shock of its introduction and present triumph.