Monday, September 8, 2008

Political Dementia, The Narrative and Public Policy

Do you have an opinion about Sarah Palin? Does it have to do with her voting record or do you think she's a spunky conservative powerhouse? Do you find yourself chanting "Yes, we can!" without really knowing what we can do?

After hearing hours of coverage of the conventions and candidates, are you familiar with their budget proposals? Do you agree with their positions on media consolidation? Do you know their records on agriculture issues? You probably know this-- there's been a big surge in enthusiasm over Sarah Palin, Obama has struck back over mocking of "community organizers," Hillary Clinton is plugging Obama while carefully trying not to slam Palin. McCain is a war hero and Obama is a rock star. One represents experience the other change.

Brian Unger, on NPR, did a feature today on Political Dementia, an invented mental disorder with symptoms like being unable to tell the difference between the experienced between the inexperienced, good experience from bad experience and worthless experience from valuable inexperience.

Maybe we can just stop all this political nonsense now and choose our candidate reality show style as this clip, aired today on CNN, suggests.

This feature on a Mad TV segment is listed as one of the top stories right now on As is often the case, the comedian manages to point out something that we've barely noticed. Our brand of news as info-tainment lends itself well to storytelling. We like stories about characters and so we debate politicians rather than politics.

A few days ago I sounded in on the Peggy Noonan open mic viral video and its commentary. I did not include a link to her original Wall Street Journal article and its attached response to her unintended moment of public candor.

Along with the much reported criticism of Palin, Noonan and Mike Murphy criticized a whole system which she referred to later in the introduction to her article as "The Narrative."

"It was just after the 1988 Republican convention ended," she wrote. "I was on the plane, as a speechwriter, that took Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, and the new vice presidential nominee, Dan Quayle, from New Orleans, the site of the convention, to Indiana. Sitting next to Mr. Quayle was the other senator from that state, Richard Lugar. As we chatted, I thought, 'Why him and not him?' Why Mr. Quayle as the choice, and not the more experienced Mr. Lugar? I came to think, in following years, that some of the reason came down to what is now called The Narrative. The story the campaign wishes to tell about itself, and communicate to others. I don't like the idea of The Narrative."

But we have become conditioned to The Narrative. The Narrative tells us which character to root for on Dancing with the Stars or Top Chef. The Narrative lets us choose Santino Rice as a Project Runway villian. It helps us to form an opinion as to whether Randal or Rebecca should be The Apprentice. And The Narrative will help us choose a president.

Don't believe that we don't know the difference between celebrity gossip and politics that affect our lives? The moment that illustrated our political dementia best to me did not come during this election cycle, but last winter when the actor, Owen Wilson, attempted suicide.

An announcer on a television network call in show (I'm sorry, I don't remember the program at this point) was asking his viewers to weigh in on whether the Santa Monica attorney's office was correct in withholding the 911 tapes of the incident from the news media. The announcer in question was making the argument that it was in the public interest-- that the public had a right to know because the actor is a public figure.

Owen Wilson is a publicized figure, but he is not going to make any policy that changes my life or yours. That a journalist would even make the argument that the public had the right to hear these tapes shows the extremes to which political dementia reaches. A reporter should understand that the fact that the public is interested does not constitute public interest.

Gawking, gossip and engaging in Schadenfreude are thought of as negative emotions, but they universal enough that we have to assume they fulfill important social functions. The biggest problem with them is when they drown out other, more important discourse.