- Historic Sites
How The Media Seduced And Captured American Politics
A noted historian argues that television, a relative newcomer, has nearly destroyed old—and valuable—political traditions
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
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?