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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Lifson is the editor and publisher of The