The Imaginary Public

It’s campaign season again–really, when is it not campaign season–and again we get endlessly treated to speculations about image and perception and style.

Here’s a typical example, from today’s Washington Post. “Rick Perry has distanced himself from George W. Bush’s brand of conservatism,” says the headline, and it goes on to tell us how Perry is marketing himself to voters. The entire article is about positioning, about how Perry is maneuvering to capture voters, about how the “brands” established by various candidates are fairing. It’s not about policy, it’s about style.

Consider this completely familiar kind of stale and empty analysis, from the same article:

While not addressing Perry specifically, Mark McKinnon, who was a top aide in both of Bush’s presidential campaigns, cautioned that his party would have trouble winning if it moved too far right.

“I think George Bush won crucial independent voters with his message of compassionate conservatism,” McKinnon said. “I worry that today’s Republican firebrand version of conservatism is dragging the party so far right that it will repel independent voters.”

Who cares what some political operative thinks? What matters, of course, is what the candidate claims to want to do. Will it help you? Will it help the country? Will it help others? What are the facts? But political journalism conditions us to consider the marketing, the branding, the style, the horse race, as the key thing, and policy as some kind of secondary issue. Here’s a piece at the Atlantic on the same phenomenon.

Our political journalism is 98% or more “candidate X projected strength” or “candiate Y conveyed a sense of being in touch with the ordinary voter.” The obvious question is always “projected it to who?”

Political journalism makes everyone an “insider.” But it can only do it by imaging an “outsider” who doesn’t quite get it, who’s perpetually not hip.

We’re constantly asked to imagine a “phantom public,” multiple copies of someone somewhere who has no critical faculties and believes whatever he sees on TV: a slack-jawed, entirely credulous yokel. This imaginary person is crucial to our entire political structure. It’s the fantasy that keeps the whole thing going. Political journalists talk endlessly about what this imaginary public, often described as “real Americans” or as “the American people” or as “ordinary Americans,” is doing/will do, and assess how the candidate does at persuading this imaginary public. But who are they talking to when they talk this way?

It’s pretty much the only kind of political coverage anyone gets. For example, CNN offers a way for you to “be in the know:”  How? “Every day we ask influential politicos to send us their top three bullet points that are driving the day’s conversation inside and outside Washington.” Or look at how CNN covers the GOP primary. “Gov. Rick Perry chastised Mitt Romney’s health care plan Thursday, but said he believes the former governor of Massachusetts is beginning to see the light.

“I think Mitt is finally recognizing that the Massachusetts health care plan that he passed is a huge problem for him,” he told conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham in an interview”

It’s not about Romney’s health care plan, it’s about how Perry is positioning it. Positioning it to who? To the imaginary credulous public.

Politicians and journalists act as if this mass non-critical public  really exists. It’s like some primitive god in an inaccessible cave; you can never go into the cave but if you believe the god is real you can speculate endlessly about how to appease it. Pretty soon appeasing the imaginary god in the cave becomes the whole point. But like the idea of “normal,” this mass credulous public is purely an intellectual construct, not an objectively real thing. No one is “normal:” normal is a way of imagining insider and outsider. 1

So our political news is predicated on this imaginary person, a person who everyone imagines as mere putty in the hands of image makers, a person who isn’t an insider and doesnt’ read/see/hear the analysis of how the brand is beng marketed. But that’s all the coverage there is: everyone is an insider, imagining phantom outsiders

It’s true that candidates are marketed like products, and it’s true that lots of voters don’t pay much attention. Can you blame them? The coverage is never about what the candidate will do for you, or to you: it’s instead about how he or she is conning the imaginary public. And the imaginary public is something you can only imagine by making it manifestly “not you.” It’s “those guys who drive that kind of car,” or “soccer moms” or people in “fly-over states,” or southerners, or liberals: it’s the imagined credulous other. You are at its mercy.

That’s the lesson our political journalism mostly conveys: you are at the mercy of the credulous, and here is how candidate X is suckering them. You, the person watching, are an insider.

I assume that it’s pretty easy to write these kind of stories. You ring up some political apparatchiks and paste in some quotes, and add some comments about the candidate being handsome or “wonkish.” Doing actual research on policy matters is hard, and slow. And I’m sure that the election process itself reinforces this: journalists get on a bus and drive around Iowa and every half hour or so the candidate gets up and gives the same speech they gave at the last diner/church/thriving or suffering local business. It looks like theater so you report it like a theater critic.

It’s axiomatic that Americans feel like politics fails them. Does anyone in America feel like either of the two parties represents them well? There are a lot of reasons for that, but maybe the chief reason is the way our politics depends on an imaginary figure, the non-critical viewer.

 

 

 

 

  1. If you doubt this, consider how, in newspaper accounts of some local criminal, the neighbors say “he seemed like a normal person.” That’s because he WAS like a normal person. I’m “like” a normal person and so are you, because “normal” is an idea, not a fact. None of us are “a normal person,” rather, we are all “like” a normal person, because “a normal person” is an imaginary construct.

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