By Jay Fidell
It’s not just that we get email every day, repeatedly, from every candidate. It’s not just that we get social media from them too. It’s that the elections create a thought bubble where people are not only trying to get our attention, but to affect our thought process.
The professionals know that most people don’t read the paper. They know that those who do may be turned off not read about politics. They also know that the political reporting on TV is short and shallow.
At the same time, they know that people watch television as a primary source of information. They know that people can’t escape ads in prime time. They know that people watch those ads, eyes clamped open as in Clockwork Orange.
Citizens United has made it possible to raise obscene amounts of money from undisclosed sources so they can barrage us with ad after ad after ad on TV, penetrating every corner of our brains. Yes, the new system is based on the principle that with the right media buys money can buy votes.
They know that people watch these ads just like they watch commercials, half-believing, but accepting more with repetition. Repetitio mater studiorum, “repetition is the mother of study.” They know if they repeat a phrase 100 times, it starts to sink in. Familiarity breeds belief. Where the individual has made no other analysis, it becomes reality and fills the vacuum.
A prime example would be Linda Lingle’s “you know me.” The implication is that we know her so what she’s telling us is true. She’s saying we need not look further because we “know her.” But a recent piece in Civil Beat points out that if you check out what she’s saying, if you really do know her, you’ll know the ads are misleading and a matrix of campaign psychology.
In short, far too many people get their voting ideas from far too few sources, and that ads like this displace the possibility of critical thinking. It’s subtle, manipulative and scary.
Polls are also very high tech, and part of the arsenal. You can ask a question one way or the other way. It’s an art. A skilled pollster can write questions to achieve a biased agenda. People believe polls and even vote on the basis of polls. And the release of a poll can be gamed for maximum effect on other polls or on the election itself. This is also scary.
Polls are an inside tool also. Candidates use them to see how many percentage points a hit piece has nicked away from the opponent. If it works, they’ll repeat it, even if it’s false or misleading. This is useful for negative campaigning. Win at all costs.
Is the public sophisticated enough to see through these machinations? Some may see what’s going on, but many don’t, and get duped on the way to the ballot box. It’s all very scientific and calculating, made possible by our highly programmed data-driven 21st Century campaigning systems. It wasn’t as bad before Citizens United, but this year it’s noticeably worse.
Some say these are just the new tools of modern Democracy, but what’s happening is certainly not what our Founding Fathers had in mind for the selection of our elected leaders. Can we, the electorate, make good choices in this environment? Can we be confident about how those choices are being made? Does the new system work or is it undermining the principles of the Republic?