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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
The fact is that each year fewer people register to vote, and among those who do, an ever-shrinking number actually go to the polls. Since casting a free ballot constitutes the highest expression of freedom in a democracy, its declining use is a grave matter. How did we get ourselves into this perilous state?
Television’s victory was not the result of a carefully planned and calculated assault on our political procedures; less still was it the conspiracy of a greedy and power-hungry industry. Rather it was a process in which each year witnessed a modest expansion of the electronic influence on American politics. A look at the presidential election of 1948, the first in the age of television, suggests both the magnitude and swiftness of the change. President Harry Truman ran a shoestring campaign sustained largely by his incumbency and the overconfidence of his opponent. Together the two candidates spent only about $15 million—the cost of a gubernatorial contest in New York three decades later. Both presidential candidates leaned heavily on their state and local parties for crowds and election-day support. Truman’s whistle-stop tour of the country harked back to a century-old technique. Television covered the conventions but intruded no further. Radio handled the late returns, and the commentator H. V. Kaltenborn, who assumed historical patterns would hold true, waited for the rural vote to sustain his early prediction of a victory for New York governor Thomas E. Dewey.
A few months later Elsenhower’s running mate, Richard Nixon, found himself entangled in a burgeoning scandal involving a private fund raised by large contributors to advance his political career. Though no law had been broken, the impropriety was clear, especially in a campaign based on cleaning up “the mess” in Washington. Eisenhower declared that anyone in public life should be as “clean as a hound’s tooth,” and many of his advisers told him to drop the young congressman.
A desperate Nixon decided to take his case directly to the public.
A desperate Nixon decided to take his case directly to the public—through a half-hour paid telecast. He declared he had meant no wrongdoing, detailed the high costs facing a California congressman, noted his own modest means, and said he had always voted his own conscience on issues before the House. Most memorable, however, was his use of his dog, Checkers, as a kind of surrogate “hound’s tooth.” To sophisticates it seemed like a clip out of a daytime soap opera, but the public found it plausible enough. More important, it satisfied Dwight Eisenhower.
These two episodes revealed the ambiguity of the new medium. Until 1952, conventions had been closed party affairs run by the national committees. In fact, that is still their only legal function. But television put the voters on the convention floor. Both parties had to dispense with a lot of the traditional hoopla—endless floor demonstrations, marathon seconding speeches, visibly indulgent behavior by delegates—and keynote speakers had to project telegenic appeal as well as party service. To be sure, television introduced its own brand of hoopla. Cameras zoomed in on outrageous costumes, floormen interviewed colorful if not always important figures, and networks did the counting of the delegates before the issues or nominations actually got to the decisive stage.
The Nixon heritage was less complicated The “Checkers” speech became shorthand for slick, calculated manipulation if not deception. Critics argued it demonstrated that a shrewd master of the medium could sell anything—not only commercial products but political candidates as well.
The presidential election of 1956 was essentially a rerun of the previous one, yet one episode demonstrated the increasing influence of television. With Stevenson’s renomination by the Democrats a certainty, the networks faced a four-day yawn from their viewers. Salvation suddenly appeared in a contest over the Vice-Presidency. With no obvious choice and with Stevenson himself undecided, three senators moved into contention: Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Chicago was awash with whispers of deals being concocted in smoke-filled rooms to designate a running mate, and to sustain his reform image, Stevenson threw open the choice to the convention. Suddenly there was theater. Kefauver had a second chance; Humphrey got his first; and Kennedy seemed to have no chance at all. A big scoreboard behind the podium recorded the voting from the floor. The Kentucky Derby never generated more excitement. As state by state announced the results, the lead fluctuated. At the last moment Humphrey released his delegates to the Tennessean who had contested Stevenson in a dozen primaries. Afterward only historians would remember that Kefauver had won, but Kennedy’s performance gave the public its first impression of a man who would dominate his party—and the media—for almost a decade.
In all, the new medium lived up both to its responsibilities and its possibilities. For the first time, it had brought two presidential candidates to the same podium. The proceedings were overly elaborate, but the handling of the event was scrupulously fair and nonpartisan. And afterward it would become increasingly hard for candidates, even incumbents, to avoid legitimate challenges on television.
The turbulence of the sixties can only be understood in the context of television’s ubiquity. It brought its first war, Vietnam, into the living room from ten thousand miles away; it showed us racial explosions across urban America; it covered the campus meetings that revealed the widest generation gap in American history; and it captured, in endless replays, the assassination of three of the country’s most popular political leaders. And viewers were also voters. The decade of turbulence scrambled old allegiances and rendered old labels meaningless.
Guggenheim and Garth were pioneers: the full media impact lay in the seventies, when it replaced more conventional activities. Its muscle was most obvious in determining the schedule of the candidate. Traditionally, managers had tried to get their stalwart in front of as many groups as possible. A heavy speaking schedule gave the candidate a chance to make his views known to a disparate electorate, and if the newspapers covered the meetings, so much the better.
Now, every effort focused on television. Instead of sessions with political groups, the object was a contrived “event.” The candidate showed up at a senior citizens’ center and delivered a brief statement drawn from some position paper. Television news deadlines determined the timing; the campaign coverage of the previous week determined the issue. As election day approached, two or three of what Daniel Boorstin has called “pseudo events” highlighted the day’s schedule. Nothing important was said, but the ninety-second exposure brought the candidate to the voter without the intercession of a party or political organization and showed him concerned about something that pollsters had discovered was on the public mind.
This direct appeal made parties increasingly superfluous. To be sure, they still had the critical line on the ballot; they still had enough registered members to make an endorsement worthwhile. But they were no longer the candidates’ principal sponsor. Indeed, they could seldom guarantee a crowd. When that was needed, a few media celebrities could draw a larger audience than a politician’s speech.
The parties also lost their traditional recruiting function. Formerly, the ambitious sought political office after a period of party service, often at lowly stations. Now the young headed directly toward electoral office with party registration their only evidence of loyalty. In fact, many considered a close affiliation with day-to-day party affairs to be the mark of a hack; a fresh, nonpartisan face appealed more to the electorate than a veteran party standard-bearer. The spread of primaries at the expense of conventions opened the way to further end runs around the organization. In addition, state after state adopted laws designed to loosen the monopoly of parties over the nominating process, thus magnifying the importance of independents. In some states, for example, an eligible voter need only appear at the polls and declare himself at that moment either a Democrat or a Republican to be entitled to cast a ballot in a party primary.
Initially, reformers rejoiced at these trends, and the regular parties seemed to be the first casualties. But media politics knew no factional boundaries. Just as surely as it undermined traditional party practices, it also withered the voluntary base of reform politics. The parties depended on patronage, reformers on participation. What regulars would do as part of the job, independents would do from commitment. Yet a media campaign did not leave much for volunteers to do.
A paid television commercial is the modern substitute for campaigning.
Polling, too, is an indispensable part of the media campaign. This is not new, but its intensity is. “The calls go out every night randomly, 150 or more,” wrote B. Brummond Ayres, Jr., in The New York Times in 1981, of the Reagan Presidency, “to homes across the country.” The interviews last a half hour; they ask every kind of question bordering on the voter’s interest and public matters. Then the computers whiz and calculators click; “earlier interviews are thrown into the mix” and “in a matter of hours President Reagan and the officials of the Republican National Committee have in hand the latest intelligence needed to tailor a speech, a program or a policy.” Richard Werthlin’s Washington firm is paid $900,000 a year for this “tracking” of the popular mood.
Previous Presidents relied on a handful of trusted advisers and erratic, and usually unsolicited, reports of party leaders and friends from across the country. But now all campaigns use polls. Indeed, despite their frequent and sometimes flagrant errors, the press and the media treat their results as news stories; columnists scatter ratings throughout their interpretations; analysts worry that their wide use has become a surrogate election, even affecting the actual outcome. Polls are, however, so much a part of the candidates’ strategy that some state legislatures have moved against the release of selected parts and require the publication of the full survey. And one poll alone won’t do. Anxious managers and candidates can hardly get enough of them, especially in the climactic weeks of the campaign. What is also important is that the survey is bought and requires no use of volunteers.
At the center of the effort is the purchasing of paid television commercials. They are the modern substitute for conventional campaigning. The candidate is not seen live; the message, in fact, is often delivered by a professional voice. The purpose is to project a candidate who is like the viewer, but better: one who arouses but does not agitate; one who elevates but does not disturb; one who exudes morality but not righteousness; one who conveys strength but not arrogance; one who is experienced but not cynical; one who has convictions but avoids controversy. Since such people are in as short supply in private life as in public affairs, a good deal of contrivance is demanded, and the commercial permits it.
The commerical does not seek truth but plausibility. It confines itself to a handful of “issues” that are the candidate’s long suit and that are reiterated until the viewer is convinced that these are of paramount interest to other voters even if they are not so to him. The idea is to define the argument on the candidate’s own terms. All this is done in the context of constant polling, telephone feedback, and, it must be added, old-fashioned political instinct. As the campaign continues, one spot will be dropped, others altered, and still others emphasized.
The central fact about commercials is their cost. For maximum advantage they are artfully spliced into programs with large voting audiences. Since most advertisers head for the same viewers, the price is very high. In 1980 thirty seconds in the prime-time New York market cost $5,000; ninety seconds cost $15,000. Even in South Dakota these figures ran as high as $250 and $500.
The financial risks attendant on a media campaign are borne solely by the candidate, not by the media managers. Bookings for commercial spots have to be made far in advance and the money paid on the barrelhead. In the past, suppliers of campaign materials—printers, hotels, and airlines—were more tolerant. Some creditors had to wait years for their money and then settled on a percentage, often small, of the original bill.
But now media consultants get their money on schedule. The most common plea at a fund raiser as election day approaches is, “If we don’t have the money by tomorrow noon, the candidate is off the air.” This is shorthand for saying, “Unless you cough up, the election is over.”
The media people have so convinced the public and political donors that the commercial is the campaign that only the penurious or uncommitted will resist. And the media’s demand is insatiable. If the consultant’s polls show the candidate is behind, then a large buy is crucial; if ahead, then the turnout is critical. In either case, the cameras roll and the candidate pays.
For the donors it is a cheap ante: they are ultimately repaid by the finance committee. After the election a few galas retire the victors’ debt. For the losers, debt is a persistent nightmare.
Many people can afford political giving, but few do it. The result is a hectic and not always elevating courtship of a handful of wealthy people by the candidate and his finance committee. Some potential donors have only a dilettante’s interest in politics, but most have interests that are more than marginally related to government. They expect what the trade euphemistically calls “access” to the winner.
The influence of money in American politics is, of course, not new. But the media has introduced a level of spending never known before. In the 1960 presidential campaigns about 10 percent of the budget went to television; by 1980 it had reached 80 percent. David Garth, the most successful practitioner of the new politics, succinctly summed up the present reality when he asserted that political effort outside commercials “is a waste of time and money.” The result is that the inordinate power of money in American politics is larger now than it was a generation ago.
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?