to Election 2008-]
Howard Segal, Professor of History
In the last decade, high-tech communications technology has played an
increasing role in political campaigns. Technology has provided
instantaneous access to news and analysis, and facilitated new formats
such as blogs. But while providing around-the-clock access to news with
the power to influence and inform, technology also has triggered a
spontaneity that can lead to messages that are dangerously superficial
in substance even as they are overwhelming in number.
The irony is that the unprecedented availability of information doesn't
necessarily, automatically or inevitably lead to knowledge. It's
unfortunate that so many Americans and others assume that the immediate
response is necessarily the preferred and most honest response. Indeed,
such spontaneity often is coupled with a compulsion to say something
provocative, whether accurate or not.
This election year, so much time and space has been and continues to be
wasted on the alleged nuances of the political discourse among Obama,
Clinton and McCain. It's as if the comments have a life of their own
when, actually, they were frequently made in passing and out of context.
What's gained by spending thousands of words on Obama's comments about
poor whites? It's reminiscent of Ed Muskie's alleged tears in the 1972
presidential election when he was denounced by the Manchester News
Leader and George Romney's comment in 1967 about being brainwashed in
Vietnam, incidents that ended their presidential aspirations. Unlike
those eras, now we have this innuendo and rhetoric every day, and it's
distracting and unhelpful.
Today, we have an information overload in political analysis as in so
much else, to the point that we have to spend a lot of time digging
through the rhetorical garbage to come up with any gems of wisdom. And
as we delete that unwanted electronic junk mail or tune in and out of
nonstop CNN or FOX coverage, we begin to wonder about built-in biases.
Paradoxically, we know almost everything there is to know about a
candidate; almost nothing is hidden. But that overload can be
suffocating, providing far more details than are useful, leaving voters
confused and often times exhausted. Access to news and information 24-7
leaves the electorate with no "real time" to reflect.
Technology also has made a difference behind the scenes of presidential
campaigns. From the solicitation of funds and registering voters to
organizing volunteers, campaigns have access to people 24-7. Howard Dean
and his 2004 presidential campaign team deserve much of the credit for
bringing presidential campaigning into the 21st century electronic age.
But what was pioneering with Dean has become conventional wisdom now.
Yet that same electronic media played and replayed Dean's "roar," giving
him no place to hide and distorting the whole episode in the process.
People shouldn't let cutting-edge, instantaneous technology substitute
for serious reflection on the candidates, the issues, and the nation's
future. The key is to not let the technology, in and of itself, shape
the vote. People should not be seduced by the coolest technology because
it is no substitute for genuine knowledge achieved through traditional
ways, such as reading and discussion. Sound bites should not be allowed
to become fatal — pun intended — to our political process at any level.