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September/October 2008 Cover


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UMaine Today Magazine


Superficial Spontaneity
[-
Back to Election 2008-]

Howard Segal, Professor of History

Howard Segal
Howard Segal

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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.

 

UMaine Today Magazine
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