TV politics: exploiting public insecurities

Even while Americans choose to spend a large part of their waking lives watching television, many of them worry that it is undermining democratic government: that the medium has become an autonomous power that shapes votes, policies, and public well-being.

There is plenty of cause for anxiety, but television power does not lie only in its ability to attract or mesmerize large audiences or in the unequal dramaturgical talents of rival candidates. Its influence depends upon what else is happening to the people who watch it.

The insecurities a great many Americans have been experiencing in recent decades enhance the influence of television in a way that needs to be more widely recognized. A large number of people are keenly aware that they may lose their livelihoods, endure severely lower living standards, or suffer war for reasons beyond their own control. For many people the political spectacle has become an unpatterned and unpredictable melange of threats and reassurances, largely unrelated to one another. People feel alienated and vulnerable and are anxious for clues about what will help and for signs that candidates and officials know how to cope.

Television supplies such clues and signs in a facile way, for it presents brief news ''stories,'' replete with vivid images and symbols that are just as disconnected from each other as the anxieties and hopes of a large part of the public. Candidates and elected officials can play easily with this TV format by contriving events and statements that evoke trust and reassure the anxious.

President Reagan has shown unique insight into the possibilities of exploiting the situation and the medium. He has apparently recognized that television can create multiple social worlds that need not be consistent with one another. For each widely held fear, a different picture of reality can be persuasive and reassuring. The inconsistencies that spring from telling different groups of people what they want to hear win support rather than lose it. Reagan can cater to national security fears through huge increases in the arms budget, cut the taxes of those who pay the most, and so run up unprecedented budgetary deficits, even while he is advocating a constitutional amendment that would make his own deficits illegal. He can declare that politics and religion should and do influence each other even while affirming his devotion to the principle of separation of church and state. This simple strategy, based on the irrelevance of contradiction, no matter how blatant, plays well to a public that gets its political news in bursts of television imagery, not in sustained, systematic accounts. Each news item attracts its own audience and intensifies a particular public concern that remains largely insulated from other news.

To win the media and public attention they need, all major party candidates are tempted to exploit public insecurities by focusing upon alleged enemies and threats that arouse widespread anxiety but are also ambiguous: hostile foreign powers and their third-world satellites, criminals, destroyers of the family and of moral values, welfare cheaters. These favorite enemies of conservatives influence opinion most strongly when evoked through graphic metaphors and facile references that encourage audiences to project their own anxieties into them. By contrast, it requires complex argument and historical and social analysis to justify economic and social change convincingly or to see the disadvantaged as victims rather than villains. In this sense the growing influence of television news helps explain the movement of both Republicans and Democrats to the right in the last two decades. The convergence of the parties on such key issues as arms increases, a low priority for new social programs, and a high priority for ''the family'' and for conventional if mythologized morality doubtless intensifies the feeling of many Americans that they can exert little influence over the policies that brighten or ruin their lives.

These developments carry some disturbing consequences. At some level of awareness people recognize what is happening and grow cynical about the political scene, even if they are bemused by particular promises and threats as they see them on the tube. Nonvoting has been growing rapidly since the early ' 60s. Election campaigns are becoming less relevant to the policies officials follow once in office. Worse, any course of official action can probably be justified to enough of the public to make it politically viable once it is a fait accompli. It has become harder to help those who need help most and easier to create a political spectacle that stultifies thought and analysis. The social conditions that make life insecure in the late 20th century create political strategies and media practices that aggravate those insecurities.

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