“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”–Edward R. Murrow. 1958

[Note: it might be useful to read this post before you proceed.  It addresses some of the same points.]

Barb Knowles of the saneteachers blog suggested that I do a post on print media political campaigns vs. televised/video ones.

The famous line of demarcation in how media changed campaigning is the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. They were the first-ever televised debates. Kennedy, the charismatic candidate, won over the supremely un-charismatic Nixon.

It made such an impression on Nixon that he did not debate in his later winning campaigns. He believed, and he was probably right, that an extended televised appearance that wasn’t carefully stage-managed would hurt his image with the voters.

Indeed, in every campaign in which there have been televised debates, the more charismatic candidate has won.

Television, as I once wrote, is a force multiplier for charisma.

Back in the days of print-only campaign coverage, it was much harder for a charismatic candidate to win.  In the 1896 Presidential election, the famously charismatic populist speaker William Jennings Bryan lost to the un-charismatic William McKinley.

Both Bryan and McKinley played to their strengths during the campaign.  Bryan traveled the country at an incredible pace, giving more than 500 speeches. McKinley used his massive financial advantage to send other speakers on his behalf, and to control the coverage that appeared in print.

There can be no doubt that if television had existed in 1896, Bryan would have won. For one thing–and this is something political strategists still don’t understand–even negative television coverage of charismatic candidates is a win for them.  Even if some pundit comes on afterward to denounce the candidate, as long as video of him delivering his message is getting out, he is winning.

There was of course no television, or even radio, in 1896.  However, Bryan was so popular that decades later, he would record parts of his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech for posterity.  No doubt he was less brilliant an orator in his old age, but it is still powerful:

Print media is inherently less emotional than television and video.  It’s a more intellectual, less visceral activity, to read an article in the paper than to watch someone on television.

If you just read transcripts of Trump’s speeches or debate answers, you will see they are incoherent nonsense.  He rarely speaks in complete sentences, he repeats himself, he interrupts himself. It only works if you can see him delivering it. That visceral reaction is the nature of charismatic authority.

This, more than anything else, is the key difference between televised and print campaigning. Print is intellectual, television is emotional.

From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other.  I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.

The idea is that charisma is what wins Presidential elections.

Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.

I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win.  But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.

I was right. Obama won re-election.

But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him.  Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.

Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.

Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up.  Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.

Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.

But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”

You would need more than that, though.  Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable.  He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people.  He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.

To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.

I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.

In 2012, I made a lot of fun of Romney for being a “generic Republican”.  It was comical how vanilla he was.  And that was boring.  He was the politician from central casting; nothing memorable about him.

And I firmly believe that is the reason he lost.

Enter Trump.

Trump is not boring.  Trump constantly commands the press’s attention.  He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him.  And he almost never backs down from it, either.

In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explicitly says that he uses this technique to promote stuff.  Whether it’s promising to build the World’s Tallest Building or a wall on the Mexican border, Trump knows this is how to get free media coverage.

Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.

And as far as “optics” go, he is right.  Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration.  When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”

The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate.  He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:


In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong.  I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.

Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies.  They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.

That is where charisma comes in.  Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.

Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people.  Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.

And there is a lot of evidence to suggest Hillary Clinton can’t, either.

My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw.  It’s not that at all.  Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that.  It’s a very rare ability.

Most people are afraid of public speaking.  This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc.  But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.

That’s the bad news for the Democrats.  The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.

Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.

And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out.  Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.

But there is one thing that should give them pause.  And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.

The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate.  So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard.  He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)

Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.

And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?

I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September.  He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year.  He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.

Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.

Will he succeed?

Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.

The press is causing everyone to panic about the Ebola virus.  It’s terrible for the victims of course, and they have my sympathy.  What I am about to say isn’t to suggest that their suffering is not terrible, and I wish those suffering from it a recovery, and my condolences go to the families of those who have succumbed to it.

But–the press needs to get a grip.  Ebola is actually less communicable than the flu, or mumps, or other diseases that have been going around.  I’m not a medical expert, but everything I read says you will know if you were in contact with someone who could have communicated the virus.

It’s a terrible thing.  I wish the CDC had done a better job of handling it.  But the U.S. press is acting as if we are all about to die. In general, I’d say that panicking is not really a great response to a given problem.

Stop the presses!

I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but I saw it with my own two eyes, I did!  He was being interviewed by Brian Williams of NBC, who said something like “an anonymous Romney staffer said you were planning to pick a boring white guy for VP”.  And Romney chuckled and said something like “you told me you weren’t interested.”  UPDATE: The verbatim quote from Romney was: “You told me you were not available”.  Same thing, really.

Now, it’s true that minutes earlier, Williams asked him something about a gun control law he passed as governor, and Romney answered with a barrage of weasel words and non-answers the likes of which I’ve seldom seen.  And even more pathetically, Williams totally let it go without follow-up questions.  But still, you have to give Romney credit: he made a joke that wasn’t awkward or forced, which is pretty rare for him.  And after all, “likeability” is what wins elections!

Really, it happened!  I tried to get the clip, or at least a transcript for you  at NBC’s website, but I can’t get the clip to embed, or even play correctly on my computer.  It might be here.  Or that might be an interview with Kathy Griffin.  For some reason, I was having a heck of a lot of trouble with navigating their site.

Good post at This Ruthless World about the Norwegian mass-murderer, Anders Behring Breivik.  I’ve been trying to avoid writing about it, because what the monster did sickens me so that I don’t really like to write about it, but I have a few thoughts on it.  Like: what is the deal with the press’s endless focus on the video games the criminal played?  It is true that it is a sign of a somewhat unhealthy mind to play games for many hours at a time, but come on; we don’t need help establishing that he is not a normal person.  And I don’t think video games invented violence, so it is just possible that Breivik got the idea independent of gaming.

Moreover, as the Ruthless World post discusses, the man is probably not actually insane.  The word they are looking for to describe him is “evil”.  Why is it so hard for people to see the truth?  Breivik is, for all intents and purposes, a Nazi.  Now, ordinarily I hesitate to make comparisons to the Nazis, but when we are discussing someone who has committed mass-murder out of an explicit desire to preserve the purity of the Aryan race, I really think the comparison is justified.

“But weren’t the Nazis themselves insane?”, you may ask. Well, yes; many of them were.  But remember, the Nazi leaders persuaded vast swaths of the German people to support them.  The average German wasn’t insane; only brainwashed by propaganda and pressured by authority into doing the bidding of the insane.  (Hannah Arendt wrote a book about this subject.) Breivik had no doubt read a good deal of neo-Nazi–and perhaps even paleo-Nazi–stuff, and consequently decided to commit his awful crimes.

He is not insane.  He is simply very, very evil.  He is a political extremist, who is willing to go to commit murder to advance his Nazi-esque philosophy.  He is a terrorist, plain and simple, and I think he deserves the same fate as Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and every other terrorist, though I do not believe the Norwegians have the death penalty.

I have a confession to make, my fellow liberals: I have never liked Keith Olbermann.

I agree with most of his political opinions, of course. But for some reason, he always seemed like a jerk to me. I feel bad saying that about a guy I never met, but he just does. I could never stand to watch his show Countdown on MSNBC or Current TV for very long; I mean, sure, he was very witty and clever in mocking various Republicans, which of course is something I am quite in favor of, but the guy just annoyed me. He has a way of speaking always slightly too loudly. (A trait he shares with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, although Olbermann does at least have a better speaking voice) Everything Olbermann said and did on his show seemed so overly theatrical, it was hard to take him seriously at all.

I also thought he was incredibly obnoxious on NBC’s Football Night in America. It seemed like he only had three or four jokes that he used every Sunday night during the highlights. I always dreaded when anybody fumbled the ball just because I knew Olbermann was going to say “so-and-so is stripped–fortunately only of the football.” It was funny the first ten times, man.

I suspect he actually is a jerk; at least, that would explain why he keeps getting fired from every network he goes to.

But at least he is partially responsible for Rachel Maddow getting her altogether superior liberal talk-show. That’s something to his credit.

I see that Sean Hannity had a special show last night documenting the alleged “history of the liberal media”. This is a key element in the Republican story of recent history. In fact, I think it is something of a deus ex machina in that story.

Television news–excluding Fox News, obviously–is dominated by liberals. I’m willing to admit that, actually. But note that I say “dominated by”, not “biased in favor of”. This may seem somewhat strange, but I think that while most individual journalists lean towards liberalism, particularly social liberalism, they try to keep their biases in check. (I suspect that that’s the first thing they teach you in journalism school.)

It is my belief that, rather than creating a liberal bias in the media, this concentration of liberalism has the effect of making a conservatives a type of entity which the media covers with uncomprehending interest. If “familiarity breeds contempt”, as the old line goes, then unfamiliarity has bred a kind of fascination.

The press in general tends to display their liberalism not, as you might expect, by always deriding or marginalizing conservatives, but by treating them as if they are some exotic type of creature they have never seen before. They react, not with outrage, but with surprise and curiosity when they hear a conservative spout some standard talking point.

For example, last year then-Senate Candidate Rand Paul said that he liked the 1964 Civil Rights Act insofar as it desegregated public places, but was uncomfortable with it desegregating private ones. This is a fairly typical libertarian position, but the press reacted like they’d never heard it. They did not smear Paul as a racist, however, despite what some people might say.

They reacted with a general lack of understanding and a realization that this was controversial. They knew this wasn’t what they all believed about the Civil Rights Act, and so they were just sort of puzzled.

This process repeats itself on issue after issue. Liberal journalists simply do not know that much about Conservatives, and so always cover them with a curiosity and, oftentimes, interest. In fact, while their coverage is not always glowing, I believe it may provide the Conservatives with an advantage in terms of getting their issues covered.

Incidentally, Eric Alterman wrote a very interesting book called What Liberal Media? that examined some of these issues. The book has a lot of flaws, particularly in just how broadly Alterman is willing to define “bias”, and obviously he’s a liberal himself; but it’s still one of the better books I’ve read on the topic.

One of the stories on the NBC Nightly News tonight was about the fact that “Mr. Peanut“, the Planters Company mascot, would be “voiced” for the first time ever in a new commercial.

That was a story.

On the nightly news

A program which, I must point out, has only a half-hour time slot. (Which, when you factor in commercials, works out to about twenty minutes of time for actual content.)

It didn’t seem terribly important to me, but perhaps I am just a curmudgeon.

“Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth?’…”–John 18:38 

Most people probably believe that of the two major political parties in the United States, it is the Democrats who are more prone to relativism. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that there are more intellectuals, who are always given over to questioning traditions, in the Democratic party. The second is that many years of conservative propaganda has told everyone so.

Most of this is the work of the religious Right, though the Atheist philosophy of Ayn Rand also rejects the idea of anything other than absolute Truth, and it is certainly more widely heard in “conservative”,or–if we must use the term–“right-wing” circles. And there is some truth to all this; after all, does not the word “Conservative” itself suggest a certain intellectual and philosophical rigidity?

But, of late, there have been signs of a creeping relativism among conservatives. For example, this column from paleo-conservative writer Patrick J. Buchanan. An excerpt:

““Naked reason,” pure rationalism… ignores that vast realm of sentiments, such as patriotism and love, that reside in the terrain between thought and feeling.” 

Buchanan, admittedly, is far from one of the major players in the Republican party, having been effectively ostracized years ago. But there is altogether something very “post-modern”, as Andrew Sullivan often says, about the behavior of the conservatives of late. Recall the odd incident early this year when Rudy Giuliani and other prominent conservatives appeared to have forgotten about the 9/11 attacks.

(As Henry Leland says to Mike Thorton in Alpha Protocol: “There are only so many coincidences that can happen before they stop being coincidences.”)

Of course, one could easily explain away such things by pointing out that it is merely the inevitable result of competing–nearly warring–political parties. A strategy, nothing more. Indeed, I suspect a credible case could be made that changes in the media and the education system have produced a general increase in the relativistic outlook, and we only notice it with conservatives because they are, historically, less susceptible to it.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that strategically speaking, the Republicans are moving more and more towards a relativistic approach to reporting and analyzing every issue. Much of their criticism of Obama is based on how he makes them feel, or the image he projects.

Perhaps Lee Atwater had some part in it. (On some sites, I have seen the phrase “Perception is reality” attributed to Atwater. I doubt he originated it, but it does encapsulate his worldview.) Still, from at least Edward Bernays onward, propagandists, strategists and ad men, or whatever name, must have at least a touch of relativism to carry out their duty.

Now, I cannot stress enough that it is mostly the conservative intellectuals and strategists who seem to think this way. All the examples I gave, with the partial exception of Giuliani, were very much the behind-the-scenes tactician sort, not the leaders, and not the rank and file. I don’t think we will ever see Sarah Palin, for example, engaging in anything other than black-and-white moral reasoning. (“We win, they lose…”)

That’s part of what’s so odd about it, in fact. On the one hand we have the traditional non-relativist view of the world characterized by most of the Republican politicians, but pull away the curtain and we find men like Karl Rove–heir to Atwater–and other such strategists. Buchanan, let us not forget, was a strategist for Richard M. Nixon. (Nixon, by the way, was interested in the works of Nietzsche.) Even Dick Cheney, in his role as an adviser to Gerald Ford, famously said: “Principle is OK up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”

It is pointless to counter by saying that the same is true of Democrats. Of course it is. Carville, Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and the rest are all doubtless cut from the same cloth. But the Democrats as a whole are already supposed to be the party of relativists, to hear the Republicans tell it, and they’re kind of correct. Nothing reveals this more than the fact that Democrats in general will tend to attack Republicans for being too absolutist. Whereas, the Republicans pride themselves on seeing through the moral haziness in which the liberal intellectuals lose themselves by understanding the absolute, God-given differences between True and False, Right and Wrong.

Let me, as Obama would say, be clear:  the majority of the Republican party believes in a rigid, absolutist, traditional Christian morality–or wants to, anyway.  But many of their strategists are willing to do almost anything to achieve victory, and are more than happy to bend the truth in order to get what they want. And they are fairly open about it.

In short, their strategists appear to be using moral and factual relativism in order to justify the rank-and-file and their leaders behaving like moral and factual absolutists.

All comments are welcome, and disagreement is encouraged. 

I’m amazed by the controversy around Rand Paul’s interview by Rachel Maddow the other day.I guess people aren’t too familiar with the intellectual history of Libertarianism. Now, Paul himself is not entirely a Libertarian, and the Tea Party movement that backs him is so far from being libertarian that it’s not even funny. But Paul does bring a libertarian pedigree to the table, and thus I think it is important to clearly define the philosophy which he is arguing for.

Libertarianism, as I understand it, wants the government to intervene as little as possible in the private sector, except when it is necessary to enforce laws defending private property rights. The reason for this is that Libertarians believe that government authority can be used to commit extremely evil acts, and that the government is more likely to harm people than to help them.

Many of the mistakes, injustices and downright atrocities that we think of governments committing in the past were not committed out of purely evil motivations. Rather, they were inspired by some government official who thought that more governmental intervention would serve “the greater good”. Hence, many people are leery of trusting the government with this authority, on the grounds that it sets dangerous precedents that some future government may choose to exploit.

Having said that, it is true that Rand Paul has handled the situation in a truly dreadful manner, and failed to make his argument in anything like a persuasive fashion. On her show the night after the interview, Rachel Maddow actually articulated what Paul was trying to say better than he did.

For the moment, the Tea Party and its supporters are apparently going with their standard “The Liberal Media is out to destroy us” defense.  They’re wrong. Neither Maddow nor NPR’s interview with Paul were “hit pieces”. Sure, they are all liberals, but Paul himself is ultimately responsible for the things he says, and his defense was pathetic. I confess that Maddow’s reaction to what Paul said seemed odd to me, but it seemed like she was genuinely unfamiliar with libertarianism, rather than out to paint Paul as a racist.

I suspect, however, that the Tea Party, should it gain any political power, will not follow through on the pure libertarianism that so many of its candidates and members occasionally espouse. The tea party’s support for the Arizona immigration law is best hint yet of this.

Indeed, this is the fundamental tragedy of the libertarians: they are forever being used as a tool to advance the cause of the minority party. Rand Paul’s father, Ron, got a lot more favorable attention from liberals back during the Bush years, because he was opposed to the Iraq War. He was useful for the Democrats, because he criticized Bush, yet was not himself a Democrat. Now that the Democrats are in power, the Republicans, and the Tea Party, have welcomed him with open arms, because he opposes Obama’s spending policies, yet can be called an “Independent thinker”. Will they listen to him should they regain a majority, and/or the Presidency? I doubt it.