Oval Office Thunderdome: In on the Big Secret

Former senator and presidential hopeful John Edwards endorsed Barack Obama for president yesterday evening. The endorsement came during an Obama rally in Michigan and was timed to coincide with the television networks’ nightly news coverage. In addition, coming one day after Obama suffered a huge defeat in the Democratic primary in West Virginia, the endorsement was designed to steal the spotlight from Hillary Clinton. At least, that is what I learned from watching the news. Therein lies something I’ve always found odd about political coverage, and election coverage in particular. Anyone who pays attention to the news has to have noticed the phenomenon, as well. That is, reporting on politics contains a large amount of analysis of tactics and strategy. Seemingly, more analysis than actual reporting. This has the effect of turning viewers and readers into vicarious participants in the campaigns.

Last night, it was not enough to report that Edwards endorsed Obama. The reasons why had to be reported. Those reasons contained no mention of parallel political philosophies between the two men, aspirant visions for the future of the nation, or anything else that one would think of as the base reasoning behind an endorsement. In fact, the endorsement itself was never shown. The fact of the endorsement was irrefutable, but the public circumstances of the endorsement were understudy to political maneuvering. The coverage all centered around this theme: How would the endorsement and its timing affect voters’ perception of Obama?

In other stories, not last night but in general, the public facts of a story can be less important than analysis of how those facts will be perceived. For example, in the contentious South Carolina primary earlier this year, in which Bill Clinton employed the southern strategy to attack Obama, analysis again outweighed story. The wink and a nod tactics used to discredit a black candidate in the south were touched upon as distasteful, but the main analysis focused on what Clinton could hope to gain for his wife’s candidacy. His words were explored only in how they could affect voting counts, turning hot-blooded rhetoric into cold calculation, with followers of the news as outside observers.

During the run-up to the Texas and Ohio primaries, Obama and Hillary Clinton were shown in the news on numerous walking tours of factories or other places where they could meet and greet the working class demographic each campaign viewed as crucial to victory. Those visits were portrayed as appeals to particular voters, with never a mention as to whether the candidates’ were genuine and sincere as they attempted to relate to those voters. It was taken for granted that such campaign events have little to do with sincerity, and everything to do with the appearance of sincerity.

Early in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, John McCain began to openly court endorsements from conservative evangelical leaders to boost his credibility with the base of the party. His actual views, and their dissonance with the GOP base, were discussed, but only in their relationship to whether or not the strategy of chasing the endorsements would be successful.

The 2006 midterm elections saw the Democrats win control of Congress, largely on an anti-war platform. Analysis of this position at the time pointed out that a Democratic Congress would have little sway in dictating a withdrawal from Iraq. The promises, destined to be broken, were portrayed as necessary to exploit because the Republicans were so weak on the war.

What we see and read in the news is so full of analysis, on both the national and local levels, that it feels as if we are all privy to the goings on in the war rooms of our politicians. We are briefed in our homes on motivations for this or that action, this or that endorsement, etc. The details of a candidate’s stance on any issue are harder to come by than why said position will secure support from this or that demographic. We are privy to the reasoning behind pandering, and it leaves me to wonder: Who are the politicians trying to convince? The pundits, columnists, and reporters have succeeded in bringing interpretation of political machinations into the home to such an extant that it is possible to hear nothing from an actual politician, yet be aware of where they are, what they are saying, who they are saying it too, and more importantly, why they think it will help their cause, regardless of whether or not their stances are genuine.

The audience for news has been elevated above that of the regular voter. By paying attention to the analysis, we are given information that supposedly makes us more aware than the average citizen. We understand demographic choices and the fickle nature of the electorate. We are treated as if we have access, above the fray watching the politicians work their magic on the uninitiated. We are let in on the joke that none of it is sincere. It’s all about winning and nothing else. The analysts address what a candidate will say to get elected and what they will actually do once in office. We applaud or decry such pandering, depending on where our own loyalties lie. The analysis has placed us in a position where we see the politicians are only performing, and not for us. We feel smarter, part of a small elite that has privileged information, a glimpse at the man behind the curtain.

The vast majority of the electorate, whether true or not, is portrayed as a malleable mass, ready to throw support to any candidate who can string words together in a certain order. It is taken for granted that this mass doesn’t watch or read news. If they did, they would be in on the strategies, making those strategies useless. They would know that campaign stops at factory entrances and diners aren’t really part of the show, just the price of admission for the candidate. But how would they know about the diner visit or factory tour if they weren’t there unless by turning to the news, where the illusion is shattered? Democracy in this fashion is portrayed as a competition to see which candidate can best herd the willfully ignorant. It is a strange side effect of in-depth news coverage, reflecting candidates’ true actions and intentions, that those not staying abreast are thus reduced.