Voters And Burgers
Copyright © by Len Holman, 8/28/10
Imagine an ad for a burger: “This burger will make your life better. It will make you happy and healthy because we say it will, and we also say it is delicious. The other people who make burgers are crooks and their places are dirty and they beat their wives and pimp out their girlfriends. Come to our restaurant and buy one.” Pretty enticing, eh? This ad is vague and makes promises which are not specific. It vilifies the other burger joints, and supposes you will buy this burger merely on the say-so of the people who make it. Would you? Of course not—yet American voters are subject to the same vague promises which have no specifics, the same demands for votes with no reason given for why anyone should vote for a particular candidate, and ESPECIALLY the vilification of a candidate’s opponent, as though his or her flunking of a math test in the 4th grade was sufficient reason to withhold a vote.
California is one example of this trend. A visit to the Republican nominee for governor’s website is necessary for the voter to find out what she plans to do if elected because her ads are of two basic kinds: vague and vilifying. If you don’t go to the website, and just watch her ads on TV, then her opponent, Jerry Brown, becomes the Devil and she’s Saint Meg. So a visit to her website is made and there you might expect to find out what her PLAN is. Fuggedtabout it! Her so-called plan is as precise as the generic mission statement for any American high school: she’s going to (trumpet fanfare) “fix education” for example. I was puzzled about this. Does “fix” mean to keep in place, to make permanent? “Fix” as a painting is “fixed” with a solution which preserves it and keeps it as it was when it was originally painted, not making it better or different. Does “fix” mean repair? Again, not likely. If you repair something, you make it the same as it was before it broke, as you would fix a shattered vase. So what does “fix” mean? To improve somehow? Ok, let’s give Saint Meg the benefit of the doubt. She’s going to make education better, but try as I might, I couldn’t find out HOW, exactly.
And she’s going to “create jobs,” a miracle of Divine proportions, as befits her saintly status. But it’s unclear exactly HOW. She’s going to create “2 million private sector jobs by 2015” and I can hardly wait. She’s going to cut taxes, which is the same as telling your child he’s going to get nothing but dessert for supper: a big crowd pleaser, for sure. For California’s education, she’s going to “usher in reforms.” “Usher” means to allow to come in, to point out a space, as does, for example, an usher in a movie house. So Meg is going to “allow” reforms to just flow in from somewhere, somehow.
Our former governor and favorite Jesuitical personality has ads which are just as factually flimsy and no less vague. He’s going to provide “green jobs” which are de rigueur promises in the liberal camp, but the only green job I know about that everyone agrees is best is the one that puts green in someone’s wallet. He’s going to tinker with a creative school curriculum, which may be code for telling the voter that he thinks schools need…well, SOMETHING, but there is no telling, from his website, what that might be.
It’s this way all across the country. Once in a while a politician running for office will say something about what he or she plans to do, but it will be couched in filmy, non-substantial phrasing and it will leave the voter wondering what metric to use to judge what the pol is saying. Mostly these ads will tell the voter that the opponent is Satan in a tie and that he wants to take milk from the mouths of children and kicks dogs—when he’s not secretly plotting to take your back teeth. Why is it this way, and why do we all put up with it and follow along, like gerbils going after pieces of carrot?
Because these negative, vague ads work. If they didn’t, no sane potential office-holder would use them, though the words “sane” and “office-holder” may not belong in the same sentence. It’s the same principle the ad people use when they do celebrity commercials. Will anyone really buy the same underwear as Michael Jordan, just because he IS Michael Jordan? Apparently, or they wouldn’t pay His Airness to do the ads. If people would try various kinds of underwear and decide which kind to buy based on fit, looks, price, color, feel or whatever, and if Haynes didn’t make the cut, then Michael would have to go back to playing pool for five thousand dollars a ball. So as long as the spin doctors and “consultants” see that negativity combined with vagueness works, combined with buzzword-promises, we won’t see the end of it.
But what about the consumer? What about us? When do we start telling these manipulators we don’t want to play? Well, it’s obvious we haven’t and there are some possible reasons for this:
1) We like it this way. Don’t bother us with Federalist Papers-type argumentation. They’re boring and we can’t understand anything in them anyway.
2) We don’t care what a candidate actually says, it’s the hairstyle that counts.
3) We don’t know any other way. We’ve been so conditioned to negativity and vapidity for so long that we think this is the norm.
4) A lot of the voters are already conditioned by the Web to sit passively and take in—without the need or desire for critical thinking—whatever is fed to our eyes and ears. There is no feedback loop. Political messages are hierarchical, from the top down. Sure, we can email our faves (they all have a “Contact” button on their websites), but who actually reads them? And more to the point, who answers?
We will continue to have these kinds of election campaigns—with no real arguments, with character-assassination, and with glowing descriptions of how Candidate X saved the world as CEO of a candy company. As with those hypothetical ads for burgers, we shouldn’t be asking: “Where’s the beef?” We should be asking “How’s the beef and can you prove it?”
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