Monuments To Mediocrity: How Soundbites Ruined Government (and Why It’s Our Fault)

We live in an age of immediacy and abbreviation. Email instead of snail mail. Texts instead of voicemails. One hundred forty (oh, sorry, 140) characters in a tweet. Four hundred thirty-two (432) characters in a Facebook status update. Drive-thru restaurants. ATMs. (We can’t even spell those words out.) Give it to me quick and let me get on with my life. If it can be done without me having to actually listen to you, so much the better.

So is it any wonder that the world of politics is what it is today?

The clearest example I can find in recent history is the 2004 presidential campaign. Kerry v. Bush. Why did Kerry lose that election? I, personally, don’t believe it was because of the Swiftboat thing. I believe it was because Kerry did not know how to speak in easily-digested, clever, 15-second soundbites. He was mocked, made the subject of late-night comedy, for his tendency to go on and on about any particular topic. I remember a Jon Stewart bit, years later, about what he named his boat. (If you don’t have the patience to watch the whole thing, just fast-forward to the 2:04 mark.) It was hilarious, sure. But was the joke actually on us?

What Senator John Kerry understood, for which the rest of us just didn’t have time, is that governing is not easily boiled down to a quick snippet of memorable slogans. This is complicated stuff. And one needs a complicated mind to understand it and do it well.

In American history, there are examples of complicated minds who understood how to govern while also understanding how to speak to the American people. Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan. Ted Kennedy. Ann Richards. You’ll notice I’m giving relatively recent references. That’s not because of politics. That’s because of Americans.

When Americans pioneered and then embraced the nature of the mass media (r)evolution, politics had to change. No longer could we put up with wordy fireside chats.

(Who wants to sit and stare at a radio?)

No more did we tolerate laborious discussion in a public forum without some flash to entertain us. As the digital age dawned and then grew, we didn’t want to sit for hours and watch debates. We wanted soundbites. We wanted low-effort ways to figure out in an instant who we liked and who we didn’t. Maybe it mattered what they said. Maybe it only mattered how they said it.

Suddenly, there was a ubiquitous poll question on every network’s graphics: Which candidate would you rather have a beer with/invite to a backyard barbeque?

Really? This is how we’re deciding who will run the country? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough beers and been to enough backyard barbeques to tell you in no uncertain terms that I do not want any of the people with whom I spent that time to become the leader of the free world. Beer pong and badminton skills do not a president make.

Except for President George W. Bush, the first man elected almost exclusively, you have to figure, because he won the backyard barbeque poll.

Mmmmm... pork!

Look where that got us.

Somehow, in the technology age, wit and pith overtook erudition and intelligence as our main standards of leadership. We favored sassy over smart, savvy over strategic, composed over considerate. We wanted style instead of substance and punch instead of precision. “Bring it on” instead of “Achieving our goals does not require us to build a flawless democracy, defeat the Taliban in every corner of the country, or create a modern economy—what we’re talking about is “good-enough” governance, basic sustainable economic development and Afghan security forces capable enough that we can draw down our forces.”

Ironically, when it comes to politics, the Information Age is actually keeping us from truly being informed. And now, we blame politicians for the fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t shoulder some of the blame. By and large, they’ve given in to the hype, and the next thing we know, they’re offering Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate. But what would we do if they all bucked the trend and spoke like Senator John Kerry instead of like President George W. Bush?

When we think of our most honored leaders, our most revered patriots, we think of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington and Kennedy. We remember Jefferson and Dr. King. Those are the men to whom monuments have been erected. And we cherish them not only because they could give fine speeches with soaring rhetoric, or write documents that give us chills. We cherish them because they had the brains to back it up.

Somehow, we’ve gone from that level of appreciation to completely writing off an impressive leader because he said he was for the Iraq war spending bill before he was against it, (halfway down the page) and then trying to offer his reasons. Fine, so Kerry wasn’t the best at playing the game. Since when is changing one’s position in the face of the facts – and wanting people to understand why – such a loathsome quality?

Now, we’re gearing up for the next presidential race. No one has announced for sure that they’re running, but here’s who’s stirring the pot:

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who paints himself as “the opposite of Obama.” Interesting, since he’s a good ol’ Southern white boy with a Confederate flag hanging in his office.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who thinks the American Revolution began in New Hampshire rather than Massachusetts, and holds up tea bags when she talks.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is widely regarded as one of the most cerebral politicians around, who thought Sen. Kerry was a flip-flopper… and then flip-flopped on Libya.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.The only person so far to form an exploratory committee (required to start raising campaign funds). His present strategy includes apologizing for his support of cap-and-trade.

Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin are still out there, floating around in the pool of potential candidates, but none of them have really committed to anything, and none of them showed up in Iowa or New Hampshire recently.

Is anyone else completely underwhelmed by this lot? These Packers of the Populist Punch who bring nothing formidable to bear on the national conversation? Who may be capable, but apparently aren’t desirous, of articulating anything other than party lines?

This week, we’re back to hearing soundbites about the budget battle. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Eric Cantor squaring off against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Chuck Schumer (who got caught on tape this week telling fellow Dems what words to use in interviews about the budget process. Like this is a huge surprise, and everyone thought it was pure coincidence that all of the Republicans use the same words, and all of the Democrats use the same words). “The Democrats need to show that they’re serious about fixing the problem” vs. “The Republicans need to decide which is worse: angering their Tea Party base or shutting down the federal government.”

And both sides repeatedly spouting the new favored line in modern rhetoric: that the other side is “kicking the can down the road.”

My personal opinion, based on the actual budget proposals in play, is that both sides still have it wrong. And I think they both know it. There is a $1.5 trillion deficit. Democrats want to cut $21 billion in spending for the fiscal year, but might be willing to take it to $33 billion if they trim defense and “mandatory” programs that get automatic funding. Republicans want to cut $61 billion, including funding for Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Environmental Protection Agency, and education programs. They’re not willing to lower the number. And lest we believe that the Republicans are the closest to the correct answer because they want to cut the most, we should require them to show their work: their $61 billion cut would make it basically impossible to enact the health care overhaul. So now you know their motive.

That doesn’t really work in a soundbite, though.

I’m sitting here now, staring at how I’ve wound up this entry, and I’m thinking, “It needs something. It needs… pizzazz.” But you know what? I’m going to leave it like it is. Because reaching for pizzazz just means I’ve fallen for the same tricks I’ve been ranting against.

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4 thoughts on “Monuments To Mediocrity: How Soundbites Ruined Government (and Why It’s Our Fault)

  1. “Since when is changing one’s position in the face of the facts – and wanting people to understand why – such a loathsome quality?” – I concur! –

    Just what I was referencing to in ‘Enough is enough’… You convey the sentiment so much better than I.. *lopsided grin*

    Another good read, and really a perspective I’ve not seen so clearly documented until now.

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