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Advertising and the Politics of Hysteria

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 13, 2008

The November 17th issue of Newsweek—the one with the Peanuts-like picture of President-Elect Obama smiling from the cover, giving the illusion of a big head on a tiny body—is devoted to a description and analysis of the campaigns of both candidates. It is an interesting wrap-up, though perhaps one would need to be a political junkie to read it all. Fast forward, then, to the last two pages, in which Newsweek’s alternating “Last Word” columnists (one fairly liberal, the other fairly conservative) each get to offer their last words on the 2008 presidential campaign.

Anna Quindlen (the liberal) emphasizes, very understandably, the singular importance of the election of a Black president in a country which once enslaved Blacks and in which, for a wide variety of reasons, they are still too often second-class citizens. Quindlen is not so naïve as to believe that the election of a Black president means that racism is dead in America, but she very likely draws the wrong conclusion from Obama’s election: “Despite all our prejudices, seen and hidden, millions of citizens managed, in the words of Dr. King, to judge Barack Obama by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.”

Really? While it is undeniable that the majority of American voters were not motivated by prejudice against Blacks, is it beyond the pale of sensible analysis to suggest that Obama won handily because of the overwhelming backlash against the incumbent party, because he ran a more effective campaign, and/or precisely because he was Black? After all, with respect to Quindlen’s main point, huge numbers of voters wanted Obama to win for racial reasons. Given our history, this is not an unlaudable sentiment—all other things being equal. But the fact remains that race seems to have played a more important role than character, just as gender would have if Hiliary Clinton had won the nomination.

In any case, the assertion that Barack Obama was elected because of "the content of his character" is, to put it mildly, implausible. No matter what skin colors are involved, America is rather clearly moving farther from such a possibility with each successive campaign. Indeed, the other “Last Word” columnist, George Will (the conservative), makes exactly this point.

Will offers a thumbnail sketch of the gradual drift thoughout American history away from the intentions of the Founders as to how the chief executive should be selected  (see The Final Repudiation). The Founders, through the original electoral college system, strove mightily to ensure that candidates would be nominated and elected on the same day, without campaigning, based on their past record of character, ability and meritorious service. Will notes that this system has morphed at least five times to become what we have now: a long campaign in which candidates use all the instruments of demagoguery to build sufficient popular support to control the outcome of, first, the nomination and then the election itself.

Will’s point is that we all ought to think very carefully about whether we want to continue electing our chief executives based essentially on their advertising skill. It is a fair question, and the very need to raise it suggests that things like past service, prior meritorious achievement, and—yes—strength of character as demonstrated in previous situations—have very little impact on the contemporary election process.

Nowadays we prefer to take our chances on experience, ability and character. Instead, we decide based on an advertising campaign, as most recently illustrated not only by Barack Obama but, at the next level down, by Sarah Palin. For Christians, who have grave reasons for avoiding the politics of popular hysteria, this is a problem worth pondering—and it crosses party lines.

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