by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & y the time this issue comes out, the Iowa caucuses will be underway and we will soon have new frontrunners or... we won't. Recall that four years ago, John Kerry was sitting about sixth going into the caucuses, but he was first coming out. Howard Dean was first going in, and a lost cause coming out. So now, on to New Hampshire.
Frankly, I'm not much bothered by the supposed clout of these first nominating events, not by comparison with what's to come. At least in Iowa, involved citizens sit across the table from each other and, face to face, attempt to explain their support for certain candidates. I'm not persuaded that the larger states that hold those impersonal primary elections are any real improvement; they draw faceless voters who never had the need to make a case in public. These are voters who merely react to orchestrated advertising campaigns consisting of mailers, TV commercials and e-mail blasts that combine to produce illusion.
We have suffered through months and months of blather, name calling, baby kissing, ridiculous "debates" and some low level demagoguery thrown in for effect, and what do we have to show for it? Careful positioning? Hillary is running for the general election, while her competitors are trying to appeal to the party base. Mitt wants us to know that the Mormon Church won't tell him how to wage his war against secularism (hint, hint). And about all his flip-flops? Well, golly, all just mistakes; had Mitt been thinking clearly, he of course would have sacrificed winning the governor's race in Massachusetts in order to be politically correct as defined by fundamentalist preachers. Then there's Rudy, who as Joe Biden put it, begins every sentence with a noun, adds a verb and ends with 9/11. Or take John McCain who, for all his compelling qualities, tells us over and over again that we "are winning" in Iraq without ever explaining what that means, nor does he address the obvious question, how he will he know when we have won? Or lost, for that matter. Populist John Edwards wants to turn back the clock on globalism without explaining what he would put in its place. Governor Mike Huckabee is fast becoming the Republican's version of Hillary -- that is, the candidate that Democrats most want to run against. Why? Because even if Huckabee does well in the primaries, Democrats know that he won't convince the mainstream American voters that he is more than the sum of his Bible stories, which, in truth he is -- but not in so many of the ways that really count.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & awking candidates and candidates hawking themselves -- that's what American presidential politics is, and perhaps, has always been. Parliamentary systems discover leaders within a party structure, thus the leadership emerges well defined and wins office typically with a minimum of fanfare. To the contrary, American presidential elections are about invention, reinvention, personal story and style -- all colorfully packaged and cleverly marketed.
All candidates seek to influence public opinion, an illusive even vague concept. To the dean of American journalists, Walter Lippmann, public opinion represented "pictures in our heads," a perception perhaps borrowed from Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave, wherein the mass of humanity sits looking at the back wall of the cave, responding only to shadows on the wall. From this general illusion comes the pictures that each forms in their head.
Lord James Bryce, in his monumental work, The American Commonwealth (1888), was more pointed. He observed that 19 out of 20 people cling to beliefs which, "when examined, mostly resolve themselves into two or three prejudices and aversions, two or three prepossessions for a particular leader or section of a party, two or three phrases or catchwords suggesting or embodying arguments which the man who repeats them has not analyzed."
And keep in mind Lippmann (whose book Public Opinion was published in 1922) and Bryce were writing before the communications revolution, before "what you see" about political questions and candidates came to be more important than "where you sit." What you see is largely a function of marketing and presentation. Where you sit, an older theory of public opinion, assumes that your view of public matters reflects your station, family, religion, region -- demographics.
My old mentor, John Craven, often referred to "playing the piano downstairs" by way of describing the effects of information manipulation. What you see and hear downstairs, Craven observed, most often isn't really real. The really real is taking place upstairs.
Plato, you see, postulates a natural light and sees it dancing off the backs of the people who sit and watch the formed shadows. But what if the light isn't natural? What if the light has been manipulated by forces upstairs?
Some would point out that Plato also saw the need for a philosopher king, one who turns from the shadows and walks to the light, to then return with the truth. Rest assured, all you neo-conservatives, Plato didn't have George W. Bush in mind of the role; but that's who public opinion gave us last time around.
It was Abraham Lincoln who observed that while you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, you can't fool all of the people all of the time.
I wonder if Lincoln were to return to our media charged world, if he might want to reconsider that observation.