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Electronic media become 'game change' in elections

Alan Boraas

Fifty years ago media scholar Marshall McLuhan predicted, indirectly, the events portrayed in the HBO film "Game Change." For those who haven't seen it, "Game Change" depicts the events surrounding Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy as the poorly vetted nominee copes with the scrutiny that came with potentially being the most powerful person in the world.

Palin, as portrayed by Julianne Moore (who, incidentally, lived in Juneau in 1971-72), has a remarkable ability, as we know, to motivate a crowd. But we sympathize with her as she lies comatose on the floor trying to cope with it all, are flabbergasted at her lack of understanding of basic political affairs and are angered as she turns attack dog, unintentionally inciting ugly, racist comments toward now-President Obama. She's become the archetype of the electronic-age celebrity politician.

Palin herself is not the game changer. The game changer is the affect of electronic technology on the way we think and, consequently, the way we select political leaders. Democracy is in transition. The social contract of Enlightenment-spawned democracy is over.

In 1962 McLuhan wrote "The Gutenberg Galaxy," an archaeology of thought. McLuhan's thesis is that the invention of movable type (Gutenberg) created literacy in the form of mass-produced books, newspapers and other print media. That invention caused a transition from the expressive thought of oral tradition to analytical thought. Words create sentences, sentences create paragraphs and paragraphs create whole works that are lineal, logical (or obviously illogical) and can be broken into parts: analysis.

The first moveable-type book was the Gutenberg Bible, setting the stage for the Reformation that transformed Catholic ritual salvation into Protestant Bible study. Similar transformations came in economics (Adam Smith), politics (John Locke, et al.) and liberalism, in the classic sense, was born. The new thought was realized in the U.S. Constitution in which power is legitimized not by the divine right of regency but by the social contract in which people authorize the government through representative democracy. "We the people of the United States..."

McLuhan correctly recognized that the electronic technology of the 1960s, particularly television, was transforming thought away from texts to an image and sound bite-driven experience in which emotion and passion outweighed analysis.

In the now-famous exchange between Andrew Halcro and Sarah Palin having breakfast the morning after a gubernatorial debate in Kodiak, Halcro marvels that Palin used no facts and figures to back up her arguments but the people love her. Palin reportedly leaned over the breakfast table, looked Halcro in the eye, and said something to the effect that statistics don't matter.

She's right. Statistics, facts and analytic thought do not matter in the new age of electronic democracy. Because of the powerful imagery of electronic media, style, presence and sound bites matter.

The first election in which television made a difference was the 1952 election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Then the Federal Communication Commission gave each candidate a weekly half-hour of free TV time. Stevenson used his time to deliver brilliant but boring talking-head lectures on foreign policy and other matters after the 10 o'clock evening news. Watchers fell asleep.

Eisenhower, or more likely his advisers, broke his free half-hour into short Disneyesque animated clips spread throughout the evening featuring a caricature of Ike and the jingle "I like Ike." Eisenhower won a close election.

And so was born the political ad, which has become increasingly sophisticated and now determines the outcome of all but the most one-sided elections. Ads are very, very expensive and create images based on emotion and gut feelings. No one reads political essays anymore; few read or understand newspaper opinions. Now people think they are participating in the political process if they watch an ad or a clip of a candidate on the evening news looking handsome/beautiful and delivering a zinger of a sound bite. That's the game changer: electronic media productions control the outcome of elections.

It's not just the dumbing down of elections; it's that power has moved from the electorate to the hidden power behind the ads. Voters are just pawns in a larger, more sophisticated game where elections are determined by those who pay for television ads, YouTube segments, twitter feeds, faux newscasts and anonymous comments to online newspapers and blogs that effectively sway voter decisions. In the new democracy the people (corporations are people, you know) who pay for the ads determine the future as the force behind the celebrity candidates they create.

Game change.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.