By Paolo von Schirach
October 8, 2012
WASHINGTON – Democracy is about certain institutional features, such as representative government exercised through freely elected representatives; a republican ethos is another matter. We can have democratic trappings with little or no republican ethos. Conversely, if we have a deeply rooted republican ethos, most likely we shall have also have fair democratic rules. In our modern world dominated by a lot of imagery that stimulates emotions rather than thinking, we have so-so democracies and little or no republican ethos. People vote on the image, on what they see. And what they see is mostly airbrushed fakery. The side that truly mastered this art of manipulation has the best chances of winning.
In Venezuela’s just held elections we see an example of little or no republican ethos and watered down democratic rules. Incumbent Hugo Chavez just got re-elected president by a large margin. Technically speaking, the election was contested. There was a legitimate challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski. Capriles lost and Chavez won by a convincing margin. So, a victory for the democratic process?
No, not even by a long shot. The whole thing was a joke. By any reasonable measure Chavez abused power in order to rig the process. The list is long; but it is enough to say that while Chavez enjoyed essentially unlimited media coverage and TV airtime, his opponent was limited to 3 minutes TV slots. So much for fairness and equal coverage for the two candidates. Let’s say that in Chavez’s Venezuela incumbency matters quite a bit.
Misguided, yet popular policies
And what about the republican ethos in Venezuela? Totally unknown commodity. Chavez is a narcissist demagogue who bought consensus by creating inefficient but popular social programs benefiting the poor through Venezuela’s large oil revenue.
Various nationalizations created a mess. Amidst inefficiencies and shortages, nothing works properly in Venezuela,while crime is rampant. But a majority of the people like a president who does things for them and so they voted for him. Some did so because of intimidation, but most did it because they think that this is how things should be. In conclusion: a populist leader bought the election by throwing around oil money and blatant abuse of power.
American politics mostly about emotions
America is not Venezuela of course, but there are similarities. Even in America many voters tend to vote for the candidate who promises to give them the most, without any thought as to how all these goodies are paid for.
On a different level, it is also taken for granted that millions will vote according to their predetermined allegiances. For instance, it is understood that 90% or more of black voters will vote for President Obama only because he is black. This is amazing. A critical vote cast by millions entirely on the basis of racial affinity?
Finally it is also understood that people will vote their emotions. Regardless of policies and platforms, millions will vote for the candidate who appears more likable. And this has to do with how he looks on TV. Is he good looking? Does he look straight into the camera? Does he smile? Are his jokes really funny? Is he a good debater, never caught off guard?
Surely millions of level headed voters will look at the record regarding an incumbent seeking re-election and will compare this with the credentials of the challenger. But there will also be millions who will cast their vote on the basis of misinformation received through the negative ads produced by the other side that are purposely aimed at stirring emotions through willful manipulation and complete distortions.
Which is to say that millions of people will cast their vote on the basis of little or no substantive information. Their preference will be determined by negative ads and partisan media distortions.
Debates are political theatre
And even the debates have to be seen in this light. Debates are mostly theatre. They are not opportunities through which voters can hear a clear articulation of policies and reasoned critiques. Debates are mostly about how one looks and how clever one can be.
Mitt Romney did very well in the first debate. But I bet that most people were impressed mostly with his style rather than the substance of what he said. Mitt Romney appeared confident, relaxed and authoritative, without being belligerent or strident. Therefore, “he looked the part”. In any Hollywood screen test he would get the part of president because he looked convincing. Obama instead looked lost. And so, no matter what he said, he did not look the part.
Having taken all this in, the wise American voters in a matter oh hours reversed the established national trend. Obama’s lead, built in large part on the basis of a bombardment of anti-Romney negative ads, suddenly vanished. Romney is now in the lead, even though by a slim margin. And most of this has to do with the way the two candidates looked in a televised match, as opposed to what they said.
Republican ethos: what is best for the commonwealth?
A deeply rooted republican ethos would invite voters to think about which candidate has the best ideas for the commonwealth, so that we can advance as a society, keeping in mind the challenges ahead and the actual means at our disposal. But here we have none of that. Politicians willfully do their best to manipulate people’s emotions and voters are quite willing to be manipulated, bestowing their favors on the one who looks better on TV.
Politics as entertainment
The sad conclusion here is that our democracy, while not as bad as Venezuela’s, is not that good. As for our republican ethos, not much there either. In America the political process has become entertainment. Electing a president has become a TV game show with audience participation. And it is all based on an appeal to fleeting emotions. The lucky candidate will be the one who will dish out the best concoction right before voting day.