Cereal politics

BY SHAWN GUDE | JUNE 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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Presidential politics has become a joke.

As an inveterate small-d democrat, it pains to me to say so. But the nascent 2012 presidential race — and, of course, the noxious media spectacle that was Weinergate — has only reminded me of the unfulfilled promise of our democracy.

Commodification of candidates and simplistic media coverage have come to characterize the presidential-selection process. Both strip our politics of substance, debasing a potentially noble and empowering endeavor and turning it into a vapid game of red versus blue.

The first problem comes with the conception of politics as a marketplace. Candidates must “brand” themselves and develop an image conducive to success. Voters are consumers, and candidates market themselves accordingly, playing to some of their worst inclinations. Framing and messaging become more important than the stances themselves.

It’s a politics of manipulation and prevarication; substantive discussion is jettisoned in favor of slick salesmanship.

The approach was illustrated memorably in John Schneider’s The Golden Kazoo: “Don’t sell the welfare state, the free-enterprise system, or whatever screwball utopia you’ve got figured out for the U.S.A. … [The candidate] is a can of beer, a squeeze tube of deodorant, a can of dog food. Sell him.” Schneider’s book came out in 1956; Obama’s 2008 campaign, which has received advertising awards, indicates things have only deteriorated.

The second problem is the media. While not a monolith, the mainstream media’s coverage of presidential elections is typically abhorrent. Focusing on “electability” as fundamental questions go unanswered — what are the implications of rising income inequality? — the media only exacerbate the commodification problem.

Exhibit A is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who officially announced Tuesday he’s vying for the GOP nomination.

Despite attracting scant support and revealing little about his actual stances, the mainstream media have treated Huntsman as a top contender. Last month, Time magazine called Huntsman the “potential Republican presidential candidate Democrats most fear.” The Christian Science Monitor took a similar tack, asking if Huntsman is “the one Obama fears most.” And this Sunday, the New York Times Magazine will feature an expansive profile of the former China ambassador.

All this for a candidate who, in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, attracted just 1 percent support from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

The problem isn’t that the media are giving Huntsman coverage but the type and amount. There’s little reason for Huntsman to receive profiles when he’s said little of substance. Gary Johnson, for instance, has similar polling numbers and executive experience, yet the sporadic mainstream media attention he does receive casts him as an oddity instead of analyzing his policy prescriptions.

The mainstream media have exposed themselves — not as phalanx of left-wingers but as profoundly presumptuous and arrogant in their coverage. (They know better than the electorate: Ron Paul has no chance, Huntsman shows promise.) They like to fancy themselves as arbiters of the “serious” but can’t bring themselves to report on the serious issues the next president will confront.

Huntsman unwittingly encapsulated the problem well in the Times piece, saying, “You know it’s not about you … It’s about the process. It’s about the drama. It’s about the entertainment.”

At least it’s become that way.

Its odious reputation notwithstanding, politics isn’t inherently iniquitous. At its core, it should involve making decisions about the problems and issues that affect us collectively: climate change, public education, the war on drugs, etc. Presidential elections are just one component of this (and democracy involves more than just electoral politics as well). But it’s an important part.

The complex choices of politics are more substantive than selecting Trix or Wheaties at the grocery store, and its implications are of greater import than the outcome of a boxing match.

Our candidates and media coverage should reflect that.

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