Please don’t vote for a TV personality!

Well, it's election time, and I'm a bit of a political junkie. The U.S., of course, has its presidential and congressional elections in early November, and it now looks like Canada will have its Parliamentary election in mid-October. All the speechifying, punditry, ads and the like have reinforced a particular sentiment that I've been harboring for a while. Namely, I hate how we're always talking about candidates' personality. You may find this strange, so let me explain.

A common theory goes something like this: we want candidates we can trust, and we trust people who have a fine sense of morality, and who are in tune with who we are as voters. That's why campaigns spend so much time and money showcasing their candidates as down-to-earth folks with upstanding characters. One of the major issues for the Obama campaign was that a lot of voters couldn't identify with him-he seemed like a distant, foreign sort of guy to many Americans.

TV loves this sort of stuff: it specializes in personality. Think about it. What's the difference between TV news and print news? Print is supposed to be impersonal and detached. It isn't always, of course, and there are plenty of opinionated columnists. But most straight-up news doesn't have much of the author's personality inserted. Nothing could be further from the truth with TV news. If your anchor doesn't have personality (or the wrong kind of personality) then your newscast is dead from the get-go. Ideally speaking, everyone on TV is a character, even if they're doing news or documentaries or even instructional videos. (By the way, this is all pretty much derivative of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. The only real difference is that I'm focused entirely on personality, and Postman considers entertainment in a broader sense.)

So what? Well, according to some, this is not necessarily a problem. Steven Johnson, in Everything Bad is Good for You, argues that the new media environment is actually increasing our intelligence, as pop culture is steadily becoming more challenging and intricate. He also argues that TV and visual media favour different kind of intelligences than print. He suggests that perhaps the social skills developed by TV mean that we are more attuned to detecting the reliability of politicians and other TV personalities. In other words, because TV focuses on personality or character, watching a lot strengthens our ability to really discern the qualities of the people that appear there.

What I think that this kind of argument misses is the incredible power of the TV production industry to manipulate the presentation of character. The fact is, political campaigns take enormous care to present all aspects of a candidate's appearance in public. The best politicians are polished performers or chameleons who have incredibly honed abilities to hide their inner beliefs and attitudes--or even adopt whatever is most convenient. On top of this, reporters and news agencies all have their own agendas. While they may or may not be simply partisan (pro-liberal or pro-conservative) all good writers and TV newsmakers have a story to tell when they go to the public. It is difficult, if not impossible to tell how exactly that story lines up with the underlying reality. The real kicker is that sometimes when one of these images get started, they can be self-reinforcing. If a picture is repeated often enough, everyone starts to assume it is fair and true. Johnson thinks we're smart enough to eventually figure it out, but I really don't agree.

It's not like this is totally unique to our media environment: do you really think Voltaire didn't try to spin his image? But again, TV is audio-visual, and cinematic images and sounds are typically far more socially accessible and emotionally powerful than straight-up print. We're really good at making personalities today. But that doesn't mean those personalities are real--in a sense, they're all fictions, even when they purport to be real biography.

The point is this: when a particular picture of a candidate starts circulating in public ("Obama is arrogant," "McCain is a hothead," "Harper is cold and awkward," etc.) it's very difficult to tell how true it is. If you're voting based on character, the man or woman you think you're electing may not exist at all. They're not real people--they're media creations. There is a real person in there somewhere, but you and I aren't going to figure out which parts are and are not without getting to know them personally--and maybe not even then.

Nowhere is this clearer than the ridiculous debate that consumes the American presidential process: is the candidate in touch with the everyday voter? Is he or she plain folks? The reality of the situation is that a candidate for president, no matter how humble his or her upbringing is, is going to be wealthy by normal standards. There haven't been any recent exceptions. The presidential candidate has come from a political background, which most of us don't operate. Even Obama or Sarah Palin, with their relatively light resumes have spent several years working in the bizarre world of legislatures, fund raisers and viciously partisan communication. The presidential candidate is managed and surrounded by an enormous group of staff workers and advisors. So no matter how you look at it, they aren't living normal lives. Any image you see that pretends to show them as an ordinary person is therefore some kind of fabrication. If they appear to have a common touch, it's not because of a shared reality with the bulk of the voting public, it's because they're good at portraying that.

So what do we do? How are we supposed to know these people? Well, I'm no political scientist, but as someone who thinks about communication, I believe we have to look at something other than personality. And I what I believe you can't fake as a politician are actions and policy positions. The significance of these two things can be muddled, obfuscated and misconstrued by good spin doctors, of course. So examining actions and policies isn't easy. But they are hard to totally falsify--harder than character, anyway.

So that's my advice: don't vote for people, vote for a history of actions and policy positions. To be perfectly honest, I don't expect anyone to agree with me on this, but I thought I'd say it anyway.

Last updated Sep. 1st, 2008 at 1:51pm by Kevin Schut