Monthly Archives: July 2004

does anything happen at a convention?

As I recall, there’s a passage in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise about the “most photographed barn in America.” People go there because others do. You cannot see the actual barn, because it is surrounded by hordes of photographers, their cameras whirring and clicking. Their backs are the spectacle.

In one sense, modern (or should I say “post-modern”?) presidential nominating conventions are like that. Tens of thousands of people go because–tens of thousands of people go. Networks cover them because–so many important people are there. As Jay Rosen notes in Press Think: “nothing happens, as any reporter will tell you. But what does that mean: nothing happens? Nothing substantive. No new information revealed. Nothing said that hasn’t been tested for acceptability to voters targeted long ago. No conflicts allowed, no intra-party debate. No surprises. No news. Just rah-rah and spectacle.”

For Jay, this observation is itself a clich?, endlessly repeated by reporters eager to call the whole convention business (and campaigning generally) a sham. Jay quotes William Powers of the National Journal: “That’s what modern presidential campaigns are, after all — elaborately staged big-budget productions in which every line that’s uttered, every piece of scenery, is carefully calculated to win over the public.” Jay finds it “fascinating … that journalists will still offer this observation today, at least twenty years after its SELL BY date, as if it they were tuned to something the rest of us did not grasp.”

Once you think about it, a modern convention is fascinating, and something does happen there. But its interest isn’t accessible if you look at politics in conventional terms, as a contest between two teams with contrasting personalities and proposals. From that point of view, it’s unclear why reporters should cover the conventions at all. If either side gets a post-convention “bounce,” it’s arguably the result of press coverage, not of the convention itself. A responsible media outlet might choose to stay away from both parties’ gatherings and use the same space to write about the substance of Social Security or Iraq.

But what if we see politics as ritual, spectacle, tradition, or even “convention” (in the broader sense)? Then we can ask: What do these ceremonies mean? Why do they linger past their original purpose? How does their symbolism change? Jay–more than half-seriously, I think–suggests that newspapers send their religion-beat reporters to the conventions this summer.

why civility really matters

Diana Mutz and Byron Reeves have conducted fascinating experiments that demonstrate the serious effects of rudeness in our televised politics. (See “Videomalaise Revisited: Effects of Television Incivility on Political Trust,” Journalism and Mass Communication Educator” Spring 2004, 59/1; not yet online.)

Some people (notably Hibbing and Theiss-Morse) have argued that Americans dislike disagreement and see it as unnecessary. Therefore, if our political system involves great debates about matters of substance and principle, many Americans will tune it out, just as they forbid discussions of politics and religion in their own homes. If this is true, it’s bad news indeed.

Others have argued that a generally negative tone in news coverage and political advertising has turned people off–not only made them less trusting, but also dissuaded them from voting. This would be bad news, too, since we need hard-hitting investigative journalism and tough criticism of incumbents.

Mutz and Reeves develop a third thesis that I find generally more hopeful. They exposed people to videotaped debates (conducted by actors) that were identical in substance–point by point–but that differed in civility. In one debate, the actors introduced their comments with deferential and polite remarks, appeared to listen, and didn’t interrupt; in the other, they used insults and rude facial expressions to demonstrate contempt. (Their behavior was well within the normal range for television shows, by the way.)

Viewers of the uncivil debates expressed considerably less trust in politicians and government after watching. Physiological instruments showed that they were emotionally aroused by what they saw. Viewers of the civil debate were less aroused and more positive toward the political system.

The authors assert that we react to behavior on television as we would to similar behavior by real people in our living rooms. Rudeness comes across as aggression and triggers very powerful and basic responses.

So why is there so much rudeness in televised politics? Wouldn’t it pay to be polite, if you’re a politician or a cable-news host? Unfortunately, participants in the experiment rated the uncivil debate as considerably more entertaining than the civil one, and said that they would be more likely to watch the same show again. Rude behavior lowers respect for politics and civic engagement, but it entertains.

That’s a conundrum, but there’s at least a ray of hope. Politicians have an interest in sustaining public support for the political system. Perhaps liberals need this support more than conservatives do, but even most conservatives don’t like to be part of a loathed profession and institution. Therefore, while news hosts and producers will always promote conflict and incivility, politicians should think of their professional self-interest and act politely.

It’s also possible, although Mutz and Reeves didn’t test this hypothesis, that citizens trust individual politicians whom they perceive to be polite; that would create an incentive for civility. If I were a politician, I would care a little about the ratings of the shows on which I appeared, but much more about how viewers perceived me and my profession. I’d make sure to be extremely polite.

By the way, I’m not a big proponent of politeness or civility for its own sake. I take a much tougher view of what it means to be “civic.” But this article suggests that civility matters to the health of our democracy.

dulce et decorum est

Last week in Burgundy, we noticed that every single town had erected a stone cross with the names of its dead from 1914-18 and 1939-45. Even a village of 50 people (according to our Michelin guide) might list a half dozen killed. A few names were marked ?d?port?taken east to die in slave labor or death camps. Overall, France lost 1,368,000 men in the First World War and 563,000 people (civilians and combatants) in the Second. That counts only the dead, not those grievously wounded, psychologically broken, widowed, orphaned, or deprived of young sons. France lost 11 percent of its entire population in the Great War, compared to a death rate of 0.37% in the United States. Even in World War II, the French lost twice as many people as we did, out of a much smaller population.

And then I think of the people, my fellow Americans, who claimed that France opposed our invasion of Iraq because they lacked the courage for war; the French were ?surrender monkeys,? in the phrase that certain hawks borrowed from ?The Simpsons.? These people remind me of the ones Siegfried Sassoon described in ?Base Details?:

IF I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,

I?d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,

And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

You?d see me with my puffy petulant face,

Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,

Reading the Roll of Honour. ?Poor young chap,?

I?d say??I used to know his father well;

Yes, we?ve lost heavily in this last scrap.?

And when the war is done and youth stone dead,

I?d toddle safely home and die?in bed.

too close to call

I’ve previously advertised this impressive article by Larry Bartels and John Zaller, which finds that the change in real personal disposable income is the best predictor of an incumbent president’s share of the vote. The ethical implications of this model bother me–rational people shouldn’t vote for the incumbent just because their spending power has grown during a short period in the recent past. However, I can well believe that the Bartels/Zaller model accurately predicts mass behavior.

So who will win? As I calculate it (and my math is fallible) the annual change in real disposable income during the first five months of 2004 was 2.3%. Bartels and Zaller’s regression line (see their figure 1) predicts that 2.3% growth would buy the incumbent just over 50% of the popular vote. But there’s a substantial margin of error (because the model is based on a small number of cases). Besides, we don’t know what will happen to real disposable income between now and November. Thus we ought to expect a very close and uncertain contest, but if current economic conditions are sustained, Bush has the edge. Most other election models give him a bigger margin.

(An interesting footnote: Bartels and Zaller claim that if Clinton had spent the federal surplus in the form of a tax cut, thus raising disposable incomes, Al Gore would have been elected in 2000. Policy won over politics.)

the Institute of Development Studies

Almost two weeks ago, I attended meetings at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex (England). I’ll write about the content of those meetings at some later point. For now, I’d simply like to draw attention to IDS as an institution–and what it represents. The Institute says that it employs “some 40 full-time Fellows [and] nearly 20 Research Officers and Research Assistants.” It also enrolls more than 110 graduate students, almost all experienced, mid-career people from the developing world. That’s an enormous number of mature and sophisticated people who have come together to study and conduct research on international development. Core funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) keeps the place afloat.

DFID’s American counterpart, AID, makes no such investment in research. Should it? IDS alone has an annual budget of about $22 million. That’s money that could otherwise directly assist poor people around the world. However, the bulk of development assistance since World War II has been counterproductive and sometimes even catastrophic. Some has been badly intentioned–designed to prop up dictators or to subsidize special interests in the donor country. But even the well-intentioned aid has often been very unwise. So it seems to me that research is essential; we need to know what works before we spend millions.

Of course, everything depends on whether the research is good. A center could spend $22 million a year on jargon and fads. Some of the foolish aid decisions of the past were bolstered by sophisticated-looking academic research. My impression of the current work at IDS is extremely favorable, partly because there’s so much consultation with the poor themselves.