Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Political Communication in the 21st Century and How We Get Duped

Here's the good news. The American political system is designed on a system of checks and balances. It depends on what the founders called "an informed citizenry." The bad news; it's becoming her and harder to find an informed citizenry! The question is, why?

Anthropologist Desmond Morris wrote in his book The Naked Ape that mankind's society began to deteriorate when the societal unit, the neighborhood, became so large that we no longer knew our neighbors. There were extenuating circumstances of course, the two main early ones being, according to Morris, the invent of the internal combustion engine and the loss of the front porch. The reason the internal combustion engine is to blame, said Morris, is that it allowed people to travel further to work, that is, the work place was removed from the neighborhood as well.

Neighborhoods are important, including the workplace, which is a subset neighborhood. I don't remember the statistic but a huge number of people find their mates where they work or worship. I include in this statistic people who are introduced to their mates through a friend with whom they work. So neighborhoods are huge in our social structure.

During the beginning of our country, neighborhoods were composed mostly of peoples from the same immigrant homelands. Irish with Irish, Germans with Germans, Danes with Danes, and yes, even slaves with slaves. What self respecting plantation owner would allow slaves to mingle with his family, after all! We didn't do away with segregation until the 60's and racism and bigotry are still with us today, at least in varying degrees, throughout America.

In historic America (I would use the term ancient, but that seems reserved for places other than America) tribe members held no property. Tools, food, hides and the like were used by the tribe for the good of the tribe. Ownership is a European invention. Things were used and replaced because that was the responsibility to the social network. Chief Sealth said, "The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth." People got along, or died, because living was so hard that, to use Hillary Clinton's term, "It Takes a Village." Going it alone meant death, at least an early death.

But people are smart. So we constructed societies because there is not only safety in numbers, but a better chance for survival as a species in numbers. Kind of like fish or geese or elk, I guess (LOL).

All of the other social norms have been built on these simple principles. Today we're pretty complex. In historic times the leaders were the best hunters, or at least the best at something; survival of the fittest. Even wolves and elk understand all of that. And there was a natural balance of things.

Yet, it was the loss of the front porch and the invent of the internal combustion engine that has steered they way to the current "modern society," of the separate yet united American people. A people that no longer talks to its neighbor or even knows who she is, except by looks.

Even in farming communities, where neighbors could live miles apart, they knew each other. They helped each other of necessity. Harvest parties, roofing parties, raising parties (building a barn or a house) and worshipping together. I think of granges and the societies built around them.

Even in towns and cities, people knew each other. There were fewer distractions and communities still looked out for each other. I'm only 57 years old, yet when I was a kid of three I wandered all around my neighborhood with impunity. We looked out for each other. It wasn't uncommon in the neighborhood that was my village for someone else's parent to discipline another's child. Not corporeally of course, but you knew when you were in trouble – and you knew your parents would soon hear about it as well.

So, what's happened in our society to make things so bad? Of my own neighbors today, I know the names of perhaps 10 percent and even less about what they do. I know the names of my immediate neighbors, and a couple up the street, but that's about all. And I'm a pretty friendly guy. So what's happened? America has lost it glue, that's what's happened.

Farming communities that once relied upon each other have been replaced with corporate farms who don't need or want outside assistance from pestering neighbors. Farmers could not compete with the corporate farms and were forced to sell out, so these famers have moved to the cities to get jobs, selling farms that had been in families for hundreds of years and several generations. Not all have sold out, but surely more than 98%.

With the invent of the internal combustion engine people are able to travel further in order to seek employment, be entertained, visit family and the like. That means that neighborhoods are less needed for participating in social things than ever. Our society has become fragmented and is becoming more fragmented daily, hourly, and the minute and second! We live further away from family members. Our support systems are no longer there.

The loss of the front porch also signifies the death of another neighborhood social strata. Time was, and I'm sure you've seen this in old movies, when people would visit on their porches and visit. Porches used to be large and many had outside furniture like chairs and even the front porch swing. I can't remember the last time I saw a front porch swing. But the point is, neighbors used to visit neighbors. They knew each other and invested in each other because it was important to the society.

Not so much now.

Starting in the 1950's, things got worse for the neighborhood. Television was invented. At least with the invention of the radio, people came together to listen to great events. It was the same with early television. I remember visiting with the friend of a friend in order to watch the first moon landing in the 1960's. They brought their television outside in order to accommodate the small gathering that came to watch.

The funny thing about television, it doesn't require a thing from the viewer, except eyes and a brain. Whatever happens on the screen is seen and deciphered in the context and ability of the viewer alone..

But something else happened with television. Psychologists and linguists and anthropologists and sociologist and political scientists all began to realize something that Advertising Agencies had found out. You can affect the way people think and act by the message you portray in modern advertising as shown on television. That is to say, politicians can frame a message in a thirty second "spot" in such a way as to create a specific perception by the viewer and get a desired reaction (action) from that specific type of viewer.

That's why polling is so important in today's political climate. Sure, politicians want to know who were voting for, but that's only the half of it. They also want to know if they create a message in a certain way will that message create a specific reaction from the viewer. To find that out they create "focus groups".

Focus groups are groups of people with a commonality, for example, all Republicans, all Democrats, for business, against business, urban, rural, liberal, conservative, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, mechanics, independents, likely voters, women, men, between certain ages and on and on. The folks are brought together and then asked questions. But that's not all, even the type of question is important. There are aided questions, un-aided questions, push questions, pull questions, fill in the blank questions and if that's not enough they watch video and are asked to rate what they've watched. And somewhere in all of these focus groups, you are represented. They know YOU.

It's all very scientific and it's all designed to find out what kind of reaction will the politician get if they do 'A', 'B' or 'C'.

Get the picture? In other words, today's politician knows what will happen before they do it. To coin a phrase from Tom Clancy's, Hunt for Red Oktober, "The average Ruski, son, doesn't take a dump without a plan." Neither does today's modern politician! Our modern candidates, and today that means Barack Obama and John McCain, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, believe they know in advance, based on polling and focus group research, what kind of response they will get before they make a speech or run an ad.

Remember "vetting"? Vetting means taking polls, using focus groups and researching a topic or a person and their past financial, medical and legal records. Not to mention published works or recorded speeches and the like.

Why go through all the trouble and vast expense? Mostly for two reasons; cost and power. It costs money to acquire power. Political parties, candidates and groups are after the power they need in order to achieve the goals they have established for themselves. That's why we have political parties. Groups of similar minded individuals want to achieve specific results for themselves and those they represent.

It is so unfortunate, but that is what our political system has come down to. Each part must play this game or lose the right to represent the electorate. Thank God we still get to vote! And if we're lucky (about once or twice in a life-time) current events will be so bad that the American people will actually look beyond the modern television campaign and get involved enough to know when we're being advertised into a vote and when we're deciding on who to vote for.

I'm a retired navy man. I'm fortunate enough to have in my neighborhood a man who is also retired navy. What makes it so fortunate is that we served on the same ship together. We fought in the Gulf War together and were deployed to the Gulf twice. We got to know each other a bit more than most folks before they become neighbors. I liked him then, and I like him today because he is a standup guy. He's honest, hardworking, loves his family and cares about his community. He's a Republican. I'm a Democrat. That only matters when we're in our voting booths.

We want the same things, my neighbor and I. We want to live in a place safe from harm (LIFE). We want to be able to make a decent living, equivalent to our means (LIBRTY). We want our families to be able to do whatever they are capable of doing without restraint (THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS). We want the same things!

We believe, my neighbor and me, that there are different ways of getting the things we want (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and that's why we belong to different political parties. That's a great thing about being an American.

But we're in danger of losing those things we hold dearest because those in power in our political parties, our leaders, have lost their way. They believe that today the end justifies the means. These leaders have shown a willingness to travel a different road, a darker road, to achieve the ends they desire. And in doing so they have shown America that they are no longer interested in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – they are simply interested in power for the sake of power. They have shown that they are willing to divide the country into as many pieces as it takes in order to get what they want regardless of what the American people want.

We cannot afford to follow them there no matter how many TV ads they buy. In our hearts, we know the truth. And the truth takes longer than 30 seconds to learn.



















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