January 11, 2006
The Two Seasons of American Politics

By Thomas Lifson

Contemporary American politics has two seasons, not four. Life is very different for politicians, the public and the media in the two respective seasons, and the ebb and flow of power operate in very distinct modalities in them. Unless we are clear about the season in which we operate, it is very easy to draw mistaken conclusions about where American politics are taking us.

I do not refer to election year politics and off-year politics, though that distinction is related to the underlying phenomenon of which I write. The key to understanding the dynamics of American politics is the question of the public’s level of attention. During Attention Season, a substantial slice of the voting public pays heed to arguments and actively relates political ideas to their own lives. They think about cause-and-effect and evaluate policies and proposals advocated by various parties and politicians in terms of the potential impact on their lives.

Normally, forthcoming elections, especially presidential contests, cause a fraction of the public to pay closer than normal attention. So election season is normally Attention Season. This is why Republicans tend to increase their support in generic polls about political preferences as elections approach. If one looked at off-year polling about party preferences, one would expect Congress to be in the hands of Democrats. But as political advertising reaches its peak prior to election day, Republicans tend to gain support, as a critical fraction makes up its mind at the last minute and pays attention to political arguments.

But Attention Season is not limited to election years. A crisis, such as 9/11, can focus Americans even in an off year. Nevertheless, Attention Season is a fleeting moment. Unless there is a special reason, most Americans do not really want to pay much attention to politics. They have far more important matters to attend to: their own lives. Outside a small percentage of political junkies in the populace, mostly those committed to one or another political viewpoint, most Americans perceive only headlines, sound bytes, images, and vague impressions of politicians, parties and issues.

It is Inattention Season, and that is normal American politics.

The default mode of Inattention Season strongly favors the Democrats. The overwhelmingly liberal media exercise their power in both blatant and subtle ways to convey a warm and fuzzy impression of Democrats. Photo editors at daily newspapers play a key role, selecting scowling pictures of Republicans and smiling pictures of Democrats, for instance. All of the television news outlets except Fox look for sound bites and visuals to reinforce a positive impression of Democrats whenever possible, and portray Republicans as mean, bigoted, white, male, awkward and stupid.

Only talk radio, among all media, favors conservatism. With its long form interactive discussions, talk radio allows ideas to be tested, illustrated, and critiqued. Thus, Democrats have not had much success with it and have, in fact, mostly invested their hope in demonizing talk radio to those who don’t listen to it.

The Democrats know very well that their strength lies in voters’ feelings rather than analysis, and so they choose slogans and labels aimed at creating fear of “mean-spirited” Republicans or “domestic spying” on ordinary Americans, and avoid directly addressing specifics of policies. They create positive images of the government “taking care of people,” and, above all, reject close examination of the outcomes which could be expected given the realities of human nature. The very format of most television, with no room for rational back-and-forth discussion or critical analysis, enables the flinging of labels.

Republican conservatives have generally been far less sophisticated at this game. By its very nature, conservatism is based on reflection and a due regard for the complexities of change and the flawed nature of the human creature.

When Ronald Reagan, a man who spent his professional life in the business of creating images, was politically active, the Democrats were more or less blindsided by his success in playing the image and sound bite game even better than they could. As a result, he was a demon-figure to them, regarded as wholly illegitimate, a sorcerer who fooled the electorate. They never could grasp his appeal to the general public on either an intellectual or an emotional level.

George H.W. Bush reverted to Republican form, terrible at fostering and reinforcing positive images, and was succeeded as president after one term by Bill Clinton, a man whose personal and organizational mastery of the sound-bite, visual symbolism, and construction of negative images for his opponents was second to none. But the Hillarycare attempted takeover of America’s vast and growing health care sector spurred private interests – mostly insurance companies – to create image advertising of their own, playing on fears of government bureaucracy rooted in the everyday experiences of dealing with the IRS or renewing a drivers’ license.

The genie unleashed by Ronald Reagan was out of the bottle and available to both sides. The Democrat liberals remained more skilled and practiced at manipulating memes, but their opposition now possessed both the means and the self confidence to use the same weaponry in political combat.

The rise of new media – talk radio, Fox News, and internet blogs – began to change the balance of power in the production of vague feelings. But even as daily newspapers face a crisis of declining circulation and advertising, as Big 3 network news declines, and as the liberal media lose market share, still in the default mode of Inattention Season, the Democrats tend to win.

So, for conservatives and Republicans, forcing people to pay attention has become the key factor for political success. It is not easy, though. Most people regard politicians with suspicion, and would much rather follow the playoffs in college or professional sports, the love lives of celebrities, or the doings of friends and relatives than political discourse. “Leave us alone” is a familiar feeling, even for conservatives confronting politics.

The hearings on the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito for a seat on the Supreme Court will offer a classic demonstration of the two parties’ divergent season-related strategies. The Democrat senators will strive to create an Inattention Season mode for the hearings, attaching negative labels (“insensitive on civil rights” and “bad for privacy” for example) to the nominee. They will seek to avoid extended discussion of underlying principles and the reasoning Judge Alito used in writing his decisions and dissents in court cases. The Republican senators, in contrast, will allow Judge Altio plenty of time to explain the principles of law he used in discharging his judicial duties. They want the public to think seriously about whether legislatures or courts should make law.

Each party’s partisans face a dilemma. Democrats want their base to focus intently on the hearings. Their fundraising constituencies, especially pro-abortion feminists and the civil rights industry, have a lot at stake, and will continue to supply funds and bodies to the Democrats as their champions, if they see a performance they like. But they do not want uncommitted voters paying close attention to the details of judicial legal activism and its implications for democratic governance. The mainstream media, for their part, always want people to pay attention, but not too much. So they will focus on sound-bites and brief visuals. Drama is good for them, serious ideas are bad

The Republicans, for their part, want the general public to pay attention to the arguments, but are also conscious that the visuals (Judge Altio’s facial expressions, posture, and general demeanor) and sound bites will dominate the media coverage seen by most Americans. There have been frantic efforts to help Judge Alito develop his on-camera presence in a pleasing manner.

For the foreseeable future, the real contest in American politics is the struggle over capturing the focused attention of the casually-interested potential voter. If the Republicans can change the climate to Attention Season weather and foster concern over the impact of politics on our lives, they can win. If not, the default mode favoring Democrats will dominate.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.

Thomas Lifson

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