WASHINGTON – “Three years before Kennedy’s inauguration, Aldous Huxley argued in Brave New World Revisited that the modern methods “now being used to merchandise the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything”.
The above quote is taken from an interesting book review essay by David M. Shribman, editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, (The Power of Persuasion, The Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2016). The book reviewed is Republic of Spin by David Greenberg.
The theme of the book is that American politicians have been consciously manipulating information to further their interests for the longest time.
But it is with the advent of television that old “spin” acquired a true industrial dimension.
The candidate as merchandise
And I found Huxley’s notation made so long ago remarkably prescient. At that time Dwight Eisenhower was still President. And yet Huxley understood the perverse effect that TV (still in its infancy at that time) was going to have on the substance of political debates . He realized that politics had entered the mass media era. And he also realized that TV would become an incredibly effective tool –in fact by far the main tool– for both marketing politicians and for manipulating the voters.
Henceforth, the political candidate and the elected office holder would be treated mostly as a product to be sold. And therefore the handlers would present only the favorable sides. Therefore, no truth about anything anymore.
Of course, one could argue about how much truth was actually delivered to the public before the advent of television. The “Yellow Press” and slanderous accusations were not invented in the 1950s. Plenty of material going back to the very origins of the American Republic.
TV political commercials
Still, here we are today, in this media saturated environment. During campaigns, the TV political commercial, ever slanted, ever tendentious, quite often openly false and slanderous, is not only the norm, it is in fact the primary instrument used by all campaigns to reach large audiences. This is where most of the money raised by candidates ends up. It is used to pay for air time. No money, no way to produce and let millions see the commercials. No commercials aired in large media markets, no chance to deliver the candidate’s message, and therefore slim or zero chances to win.
In these TV political ads records are routinely misrepresented; achievements are magnified or altogether invented. Enemies are vilified. Opponents’ character assassination is the norm. Complicated international political dynamics are reduced to stupid simplifications.
And nobody complains. This is the accepted and some times celebrated way in which candidates bring their case to distracted and uninformed people who in most cases do not have the time or the interest to beef up their knowledge on “the issues”. And so it is all about images, background music, and emotional language hopefully leading to persuasion. And if it takes tricks or outright lies to sway voters, so be it. “This is the way it is done”, all the pros will tell you.
What Huxley wrote almost 70 years ago is as true as ever. We have entered the era of lies routinely delivered by all candidates. But nobody seems to care. The one who can present his/her case in a few seconds in a persuasive way, however untruthful the whole thing may be, has a far better chance to win.
The truth does not matter anymore. And it seems that no one cares that much.