Friday, October 3, 2008

Demagoguery 101: The Midterm

If, as I suggested after the Republican convention, John McCain's campaign as being run as an on-the-job-training course in demagoguery and if Sarah Palin is the prize student in the classroom, then last night's debate with Joe Biden should count as her midterm; and she may well have passed with flying colors. Reading Andrew Keen's Great Seduction post this morning, I realize that he had extracted the two Palin quotes that stuck in my craw more than any of the others. The first was her up-front defiance of the ground rules of the debate itself:

I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear, But I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.

The second was her preemptive strike against all the media pundits that would rush to analyze the debate as soon as it concluded:

I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter even of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they just heard. I'd rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did.

Of course one did not have to be a media pundit to identify how seldom she actually answered any of those tough questions, consistent with her rejection of debating rules; but this just brought us back to those memorable words on Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC that got me thinking about demagoguery in the first place, "Who cares?" Palin has all the makings of being the first significant American demagogue of the twenty-first century; and, given where she is heading, she may well rise to world-class status.

So, regardless of the motives of mainstream media, why have we not seen more pushback in cyberspace? Consider Keen's reaction to the second Palin quote:

That should have been the moment when all the progressive critics of traditionally curated media -- from shrewd Arianna to crazy Markos at the Daily Koz to Hegelian Steve, the ringmaster at the Gillmor Gang -- should have woken up from their democratizing dream by the nightmare of digital fascism.

My own hypothesis is that all those "usual suspects" of progressive criticism did not pick up from either Wallace or Palin on this emergence of demagoguery because, when push comes to shove, they're all in it for their vanity. Put another way, they want the same "star power" that Katie Couric has. Indeed, they feel entitled to it because they think they're smarter than she is! Unfortunately, as folks like Stephen Jay Gould used to demonstrate with hard examples, people who think they are smart are often the most gullible; and McCain has a team that can prey on the gullible for all they are worth.

Keen also suggested that Palin is the perfect example of the media trumping the message, and I also have a hypothesis to explain this proposition: The media can be consumed, but the message has to be interpreted. Those of us who attend to the messages of political discourse are happy to read the editorial opinions that explore different interpretations. In her role as "media object" Palin can and, more importantly, does disregard interpretation. (Actually, Wallace disregards it, which is why her who-cares strategy may actually succeed.) The McCain team knows that their best chance at success comes from running an advertising campaign (as in Joe McGinniss' book about Richard Nixon's 1968 Presidential campaign, The Selling of the President), rather than a political one. Put another way, it is about impulse buying, rather than deliberating over a choice.

At least Obama's numbers have been improving (for now)!

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