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What I’m thinking about from time to time

In an Election Year… the message is the medium?

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After reading this piece in Slate comparing Democratic and Republican presidents and the US economy going back to 1959, I began wondering if it’s actually important that Democrats may actually be better for the economy (in the ‘conservative’ ways of increased economic growth and decreased spending) than Republicans, or if the results aren’t as important as the promises.

Regardless of what this piece shows, or how in depth it goes, it’s hard to imagine the tables turning and Americans beginning to view Democrats as the standard-bearers of decreased spending and increased job growth. Even this election cycle, where Obama’s plan calls for tax-cuts for the middle class and the democrats keep trying to paint McCain as bad for the economy, polls are still showing McCain is only 5 points behind Obama in polls asking who is trusted to handle the economy. Why? Because regardless of how they deliver on economic promises as presidents, Republicans are undeniably good at spreading a message.

Marshall McLuhan said ‘the medium is the message,’ meaning the way to deliver content is more influential and important than the actual content. More specifically, McLuhan said that every medium was composed of another medium: A TV shows moving pictures, moving pictures are made of still pictures, still pictures are understood through the senses of sight and hearing, thought is processed. Thought, then, being perhaps the only pure medium (this being McLuhan, take it all with a grain of salt).

Election-season news is dominated by the “narrative”- tv ads, speeches, news stories, and radio talk shows are devoted to specific issues and stories that define a candidate moreso than the candidate’s positions, voting record, or platforms. This year Obama=Change/hope, McCain=experience/character. But, as a quick watch of the RNC or a McCain commercial, Obama also = higher taxes, fewer jobs, etc. There’s no real reason to say that an Obama presidency would be worse for the average american, economically speaking, than a McCain one, and using history as a guide it seems like the reverse is probably true.

But the candidates deal in ‘messages,’ in distilling concepts to their purest form so that only sound clips and catchphrases remain. Thus the message becomes the medium to convey a candidate; and only the messages that fit into the established ‘narrative’ will catch on. This is why the scandals that plague Obama- rev. wright, for example- are ones which paint Obama as something other than “change.”

Much has been made in recent weeks of McCain’s attacks on Obama being outright lies or purposeful distortions. I would argue, though, that it doesn’t matter if McCain is lying. All that matters is whether people will believe it. And people will believe Republicans are better for the economy because Republicans keep talking about how Democrats will raise taxes; meanwhile Democrats don’t really make “lower taxes” part of their message/narrative.

By using ‘Narrative’ as the means to portray a candidate to America, the medium of ‘narrative’ becomes the only piece of the puzzle. Discussing the issues will only be important when it fits in the narrative. Straying from the issues only works when it fits in the narrative. Charges of corruption against Palin don’t matter because her identity isn’t tied to standing against “firing state employees for personal reasons.” Trying to paint Obama as a Muslim is unlikely to sway any real independent swing voter because, try as he and others might to portray him as a man of faith, Religion just doesn’t fit into his narrative (probably due to his Democrat roots, and the fact that his religion is too different from that of mainstream white America where an inner-city African American church’s message has little to do with the sermons of their suburban evangelical churches).

The message is the medium.


Written by Tyler Baber

September 16, 2008 at 7:33 pm

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