Scorched earth, distortion and spin: political communication in 2012

It’s not even September yet. The conventions aren’t through, and already the Obama/Biden and Romney/Ryan partisans are locked and loaded with focus-grouped messages designed to burn each other alive. Feh.

I know that politics brings out the worst in people, and it’s been that way for a really long time.  Historian Paul Boller avers that after George Washington, we invented political parties, and the nastiness continues unabated as a result.  I remember 1968 – the bloody quest for the Democratic nomination where the fix was in for Hubert Humphrey. The rise from political ashes of Richard Nixon, Clean Gene McCarthy. In ’72, George McGovern is waxed by Richard Nixon, making the Plumbers and Watergate one of the stupider crimes of the century.  Ford pardons Nixon and Carter puts on a sweater as we wait in line for gas. Up until that point, they all referred to each other as, “my esteemed opponent” — perhaps because they made the rash assumption that whatever their differences in belief or approach, we all had honorable goals in mind.

That doesn’t seem to be the case now — Willie Horton, Slick Willie, right-wing nut job, pinko liberal. Now we have and the Tea Party demanding pledges of allegiance to their views — when you’re farther right than Attila the Hun, everyone looks like a left-wing dipstick. When you’re left of Jane Fonda, everyone looks like a right-wing extremist. We misinterpret political terms — socialist, communist, fascist, conservative, Nazi — and apply them inappropriately. Democrats don’t want the end of private property, Republicans don’t want hoards of poor people to starve and die. Neither party has suggested be have a dictator.

This makes me sad as an American, but also makes me mad as a communicator. Whither simple fairness?  Obama’s a communist who wants to turn us into Greece. Romney’s rich, so he has to be a criminal. Paul Ryan (who is a pretty serious and smart guy on economics and government, regardless of his predictable social policy perspectives) wants to push granny over a cliff and put on Ebeneezer Scrooge’s waistcoat as he watches Tiny Tim starve.

This is a serious election. It’s a battle over two world views — one that says government should play the dominant role in life in pursuit of fairness, and the other that says that government should tolerate some unfairness in favor of liberty and markets and more power to the individual. Regardless of where you or I stand on that question, it’s a discussion worth having.

If only we can stop shouting each other down long enough to listen and decide.


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12 Responses to “Scorched earth, distortion and spin: political communication in 2012”

  1. Ike says:

    It’s obvious that you’re just a tool of the _________, taking your marching orders from blogs like ________ and __________, and if _____________ wasn’t feeding you partisan hackery from Twitter you likely couldn’t string together 140 characters of coherent words.

    The problem with people like you is that you’re oblivious toward your bias. Anyone with a brain would disagree with you, and anyone with a heart would pity you.

    Now, go forth and bow before your masters at ____________. That is, if you can pry your eyes away from ___________ long enough to get off the couch.



    Every wanna-be political hack on the internet.

  2. Stu says:

    welcome comments indeed! the shrillness factor seems unparalleled this cycle, the end of decency? what’s needed are blogsters and people serious about solutions to our problems heralding sites that ferret out the vitriol leaving for open consideration the bare positions of each side aimed at addressing the problems – I never dreamed the campaign would be coopted by the talking-points-only discussion so far ahead of the conventions. given policy approaches minus the mean and petty rhetoric, well-intentioned voters instinctively and collectively can be trusted to know what the country needs – the problem is knowing what each side REALLY is proposing

  3. Sean says:

    @ike – ____ for your ____ comment. I agree that there is too much ____ in our world today, and your ______ opinion ____ new light on a _____ subject.

    Dirtbag II.

  4. Sean says:

    @Stu – it’s almost like we’re in a post-fact world. Opinion rules, hence, CNN (which largely lacks an obvious editorial perspective other than the sort of general liberal tone of most media) lags Fox and MSNBC in the ratings.

    My journalism professors said being unbiased was impossible, but being FAIR was essential. That meant leaving your own opinions and angles out of the story as much as possible, and seeking alternative views to challenge sources.

    Now, any journalist without an ideological angle can’t survive, and no one believes media can be fair.

    For PR – we are terribly important to the overworked media – and we have direct access to our consumers. That adds up to a lack of objectivity (even its pretense!)


    Thanks for your comment.

  5. Robin Ratliff says:

    When the Supreme Court decides that corporations are equivalent to people (a notion that any junior high schooler could disprove in a C+ essay) and when we need PolitiFact to parse campaign messages that lie all the way to “pants on fire,” we have all lost perspective on what matters most.

    Even sadder that our future generations will inherit the bitter fruit of this insanity and lack respect for what government is capable of doing when the greater good is more important than pandering to your “base.”

    Whatever happened to “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”? Oh yeah, that’s so 18th century.

  6. Sean says:

    Thanks Robin – I could parse Citizens United with you, but instead will expand a bit on your comment about pandering to your base. Usually, about 25% of Americans self-describe as liberal and 40% as conservative. That leaves 35% in a combination of left-leaning moderate, right-leaning moderate, independent and uninterested. Another way I’ve seen it explained is that we are a center-right country (something my Southern California and NYC friends decry, btw).

    Any given election hinges on getting the truest believers out to vote.

    It therefore becomes less about pandering than about ensuring your base’s enthusiasm. The R-base is larger by quite a lot than the D-base, therefore the Dems need more from the center than the Republicans. A friend of mine said it well: Republican “lite” never wins.

  7. Robin Ratliff says:

    To my mind, it still comes back to your headline: scorched earth, distortion and spin.

    And we’re all sick of it, whether D or R or somewhere in between.

    I have seen less than half a dozen 2012 election bumper stickers this year….what does that say?

  8. Sean says:

    I don’t know what the lack of stickers says, other than the continuing decline of print as a vehicle (kidding!)…

    Everyone does seem mighty angry, but of course, when you think very little of your political opponents, it can get like that. Hard to believe that Reagan and Tip O’Neill would savage each other in the press on policy, but counted each other as friends. No ad hom attacks there.

  9. Ike says:

    Well, the truth is that a corporation really is just a group of people. And it’s rather unconstitutional to tell a group of people that they can’t collectively exercise the same rights that they could individually.

    Although we do have a number of municipalities that are doing a fine job of that nevertheless.

  10. Robin Ratliff says:

    I contend that money ain’t speech, no matter what the guys in the robes say.

    But in the interest of civil discourse, that is all I will add!

  11. Sean says:

    @Robin in my PR/Ad law class last year, this was an acrimonious debate – But even our prof had to admit that the restrictions on speech on the basis of the identity of the speaker were unconstitutional – See Buckley v Valeo, First Nat. Bank of Boston v Bellotti. And Austin v. Michigan Chamber — which established PACs as a vehicle for corporate entry to political speech — is what is overturned.

    The court, in my view, lands on the side of the ability of people to listen and make their own determinations. The devil IS in the details, but they many times err on the side of more speech rather than less speech.

    Of course, if we see corporations as enemies of the people (as opposed to the pure motives of government), this is an outrage – as it was to our professor.

    But really – it’s all more of a sad commentary on our collective ability to think and reason – short attention span theater, donchaknow.

  12. Robin Ratliff says:

    I have no problem reasoning and have studied the issue too. If you inferred from my brief comments that I see corporations as enemies, then you have succumbed to your own spin.

    But hey, thanks for the AMMO!