Presidential Race: Why it Didn’t Matter (11/00)

No matter what you thought of the US presidential race, aren’t you glad it’s almost over? Certainly, half the voting public must be, those who don’t bother to show up and likely consider elections an intrusion or a rip off. And the rest? Conventional wisdom says most voters didn’t care for their choices. Regardless, it didn’t bring out the best in our leaders or the system. 

Yet, there’s an untold story. Actually, the whole thing was a sophisticated exercise in "perception management." According to Valeska and Ronald Stupak, PR strategists with Burson-Marsteller, that’s what any successful business, politician, or movement must do – make sure the perceptions of potential customers are impacted in precise and powerful ways. It used to be called propaganda. And the key isn’t content, but symbols and cues that appeal to emotions. "We must never forget," the experts explain, "that emotion has much more to do with behavior than reason does." 

Thus, with corporate media’s help, most voters were persuaded that, despite any dissatisfaction with the choice, who won the presidential race would make a real difference. Even the Left, caught up in an identity crisis sparked by Ralph Nader’s surprisingly effective campaign, accepted the premise. An especially rabid example was Eric Alterman’s final attack on Nader in The Nation. If Bush won, he wrote, say goodbye to affirmative action, abortion rights, gun control, campaign finance reform, minimum wage increases, environmental protection, worker safety, and "just about everything else the government can do to help the neediest." Oh, really? So, Bush isn’t just another hypocrite, he’s evil incarnate. 

The corporate media, of course, didn’t buy this scenario. Their own perception management technique was to keep the discussion, as much as possible, focused on themselves. Thus, the election was framed as a choice between style (Bush) versus substance (Gore). As ABC’s Cokie Roberts candidly explained, "The story line is Bush isn’t smart enough and Gore isn’t straight enough." The term "story line" is a euphemism for the fact that our media gatekeepers had preconceived notions, and these deeply influenced what was "newsworthy." 

Mainly, they reveled in the idea that mass media – with their incessant polling and punditry, late night jokes, talk show cameos, and "carpet bombing" ad wars – was the driving force in the campaign. A kiss, a sigh, or any slight misstep could spark frenzy and confusion. What they didn’t – perhaps, couldn’t – mention is the extent to which, in global terms, the outcome will make no difference at all. Such a story line clearly wouldn’t be good for ratings. 

So, let’s consider some issues, ones rarely mentioned in coverage of the presidential race.

1. Arms and Intervention: Whether Bush or Gore, corrupt and brutal regimes will continue to receive generous US arms shipments and deadly training. For instance, both enthusiastically back massive military aid to Colombia. The words "human rights violations" never escaped their lips.

2. Iraq Sanctions: Neither candidate expressed interest in ending a policy that has cost a million lives and threatens to destroy a culture.

3. Cuba: Anyone who thinks either guy would move to lift the 40-year-old economic embargo before Castro dies needs a reality check. 

4. The Military Budget: A hike in the grotesque $311 billion US military budget is a given. Gore proposed adding $10 billion a year. Bush said he wanted "only" $4.5 billion more.

5. Global Trade Deals: The issue was rarely mentioned, but both candidates made it clear they back NAFTA, the WTO, the whole de facto world government known as "globalization." Neither offered anything to protect workers or the environment. 

6. Star Wars: Though Bush was more bullish, both think spending $60 billion or more on a "Star Wars" anti-missile system is a sound investment. The risks never came up.

7. NATO expansion: Despite the prospect of a defensive Russian response, both support expanding NATO eastward by 2002. The military umbrella will then extend to the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – right at Russia’s doorstep. 

Needless to say, Nader had very different positions on all of the above, and more. But that story line was definitely off-limits, except as a small "spoiler" sidebar. Actually, Nader was dangerous, threatening to undermine confidence in the false choice being promoted. As the perception managers from Burson-Marsteller explain, perceptions and style take one only so far, especially if the public discovers that the "product" is questionable. From politics to dog food, it’s tough to make the sale if consumers get a taste, don’t like it, and see another choice. 

In any case, whenever this show is over, the problems will remain the same. So, until we escape the clutches of perceptions managers – by embracing candidates who are really different, and getting our own story line out there through independent media – let’s at least keep things in perspective. Mostly, it was hype and spin. And not nearly as important as the battles ahead.