Friday, 21 October 2016

When politics becomes theatre we're all losers.

As this wretched US Presidential election stumbles towards its graceless denouement, attention is turning to what it tells us about the state of mainstream politics. How is it that a candidate as obviously unqualified, as flagrantly misogynist and racist, as narcissistic, as morally debased and as unbelievably thick as Donald Trump managed to win the nomination of a major political party in the US and convince a still sizeable chunk of the population that he is fit to hold office? In any normal election cycle, we're told, Trump would have been derailed by any one of his numerous scandals. It would be a mistake, however, to see Trump's rise in isolation; while much of the analysis has rightfully focused on the socioeconomic and racial factors that have led predominantly white working class and middle class males to backing Trump, less attention is paid to the role of the media in his rise. This should not come as a surprise. The media is not very good at self-introspection. This was in evidence here in Ireland last year during the Banking Inquiry when former editor of the Irish Times Geraldine Kennedy was unapologetic about the role of the media in inflating the property bubble during the Celtic Tiger, denying the reliance the Irish media had on the property sector for ad revenue affected their editorial independence. 

The media in the US are similarly guilty of this kind of tunnel vision when it comes to profit undermining editorial standards. While Trump and his surrogates routinely accuse mainstream media outlets of bias in their reporting of him and his campaign, they ignore inconvenient facts such as a report from May by mediaQuant which showed that Trump had received the equivalent of almost $3bn in free advertising thanks to the hours of airtime and column inches devoted to him by the US media. His nearest rival for the Republican nomination at the time Ted Cruz received $771m in free advertising while Hillary Clinton received $1.1bn. No matter what way you slice it, the Donald was the big winner in the early stages of this campaign and it's easy to see why. Thanks to his celebrity and the outrageous things he did and said, he was a ratings winner for news stations. 

I mean, it's not even like the mainstream press particularly likes Trump. He's alienated and belittled reporters like Megyn Kelly and Serge Kovaleski and not a single major newspaper in the US has endorsed him for president (which is a record). It's just that the mainstream press was so utterly transfixed by this perma-tanned, politically illiterate buffoon that they could do nothing else but disproportionately devote hours of coverage to him. The profit motive in commercial media can be damaging for editorial standards and also, in this case, political discourse. Because everyone professes to wanting to "stick to the substantive issues" or "focus on policy" but that's not what draws in the viewers. And let's not pretend that this is some new phenomenon, exclusive to the 2016 race. 

The shameful disregarding of policy and real political issues is perhaps best reflected in the almost total neglecting by the media of the other elections in the US which take place on the same day as the presidential election. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 out of 100 seats in the US Senate are up for grabs, as well as many state and local elections, including 12 states who are holding gubernatorial elections. This stuff really, really matters. If Hillary Clinton is elected but the Republicans continue to control the House and the Senate then many of the policies she wishes to pursue - from infrastructural investment to an increased federal minimum wage - are likely to be blocked by congress. It's worth remembering that during the Obama years the US Congress descended into a sort of temple of non-productivity, with the number of laws passed by it each year reaching almost record lows, as both parties engaged in the basest kind of factionalism. In addition, control of the state legislatures is really important given America's federalised system of government and the ability of states to set their own laws. The rolling back of abortion rights in the US over the last number of years, for instance, has happened at state level. 

What's more, while the Democrats are expected to do well in the Senate elections, their lead is narrowing significantly. As the excellent FiveThirtyEight website puts it, "The presidential election is sucking up everyone’s attention, but make no mistake: Control of the next United States Senate, remains very much in doubt." Hillary Clinton has soared ahead of Donald Trump in the polls, but those numbers have not been replicated for the Democrats elsewhere. While FiveThirtyEight reckon Clinton has an 88% chance of clinching the White House, they estimate the Democrats have only a 54% chance of controlling the Senate - the chamber of the US Congress with the most power and prestige.

Given these elections are almost as important to the American political process as the presidential election itself, you'd naturally presume they should be the express focus of the mainstream press now, that the presidential election is all but wrapped up - how is Hillary Clinton going to enact the policies she's advocated throughout this campaign without her party also controlling the congress? But that's not the case. Given the fact that the Presidential Debates have proven so blockbuster - the first one is thought to have been the most watched in American history - the newscasters are continuing to focus on the presidential elections while largely ignoring the congressional and state elections. 

This is not unique to America, though America is probably the most gaudy example of the deterioration of mainstream politics to a sort of popularity contest bankrolled by special interests. One of the problem I have with how the media reports on politics today is that it reduces politics to personalities and events. Instead of issues and policies being teased out and the processes behind them analysed, media focus continues to be trained on individuals and their perceived strengths and weaknesses. So, when it comes to election time a leader's likeability or their 'leadership qualities' or their soundbites are immeasurably more important than the policies they present. This is especially evident in the UK where a poll by YouGov recently showed that the British public actually prefer the economic policies of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party to the Tories - but only when they aren't told they're actually his. Corbyn, much like his predecessor as Labour leader Ed Miliband, has been the subject of a character assassination by the right-wing press in Britain who routinely characterise him and his supporters as incompetent, extremist, Britain-hating loonies. Corbyn and his team have undoubtedly had their failings when it comes to media strategy and communications, but the bias of the British press is undeniable

So what are the solutions? Is the media really all to blame? If you were to ask media executives they'd tell you they're simply giving them what the public wants. The public doesn't care about the intricacies of policy, the background to big politcal issues, boring down-ballot elections - the public likes political drama, demagogues, backstabbers and tragic heroes. That's illustrated in the viewing figures that Donald Trump speeches, rallies and controversies pulled in. But the damage this does to political discourse and debate is so profound we need to seriously consider what we can do to fix it. Is political education from a young age to ensure that young adults leaving school have a basic grasp of political issues and ideologies a solution? Is opening up the policy process to the public and governments providing better transparency in how they formulate it a solution? It's difficult to envisage a proper solution within the confines of a capitalist economy because news corportation will always be at the mercy of their viewing figures and their balance sheets. But as long as politics and news is presented as light entertainment there'll always be a chance another Donald Trump will appear.

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