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Viewpoint: Politics as entertainment

In the wake of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, much attention seemed to be paid to how entertaining the conventions were to watch. News sites seemed to care less and less about what the candidates were actually saying and more and more about when Nielsen ratings (the television audience measurement systems developed by Nielsen Media Research) spiked, or when social media mentions seemed to hit their highest marks.

Could it be that, in the televised mixing bowl of bachelorettes, survivors, master chefs, glorified karaoke singers and Honey Boo Boos, the newest reality TV show is just politics?

We live in an era where President Obama slow-jams the news with Jimmy Fallon, where Michelle Obama shows up on The Biggest Loser and iCarly, where the mostly irrelevant Palin family can’t seem to stay off of television and where a large chunk of the candidates who were running for the Republican nomination were former Fox News analysts.

Politicians, traditionally, are not at their most candid when in front of large audiences. This is true, and always will be, and that’s OK. Elected officials and, more specifically, candidates-in-the-running shouldn’t be expected to launch into politically specific speeches filled with jargon or policy-rich dialogue while in front of large crowds. Crowds can be easily distracted or, more importantly, turn the channel.

But instead of just simplifying their doctrines, politicians’ speeches tend instead to be endless strings of harmless one-liners, strung together by happy, thoughtless applause. These one-liners are constructed by speech-writers who reach their hands into the Great Big Jar of Obviously Inspiring Statements, and usually sound like “We need a stronger America now!” or “Less talk and more walk!” Ironically, the idea of politicians “standing behind what they’ve said” and “keeping the promises they’ve made” is a sound one, because candidates never actually need to say things or make promises to be telling the truth.

Complaints against politicians and their song-and-dancing are as old as time, but this old problem has become a confusing illness, nearing epidemic levels, by the 24-hour news cycle. Candidates rarely say anything really important, and when they do, the opposition uses those few words as ammunition in an arms race to blow words out of proportion.

Intelligent men and women running for office construct sharp and complex platforms, yet they do not seem to trust the American public (or their opposition) with these platforms as public knowledge. Instead, they rally behind singularly obvious ideals like gun control, education (both sides say it’s “all about the kids”) and “the economy;” these subjects are all too large or too politically charged to ever actually be touched by representatives from either side of the aisle, yet they make wonderful rallying cries and bumper stickers.

Obama is often criticized for winning the 2008 election by riding his marvelous speaking abilities, and in what might be the most telling microcosm of this politics-as-entertainment issue, Gov. Romney’s speech at last week’s Republican National Convention referenced a speech Obama gave during his first election. According to Romney, Obama, in paraphrase, said something about “promis(ing) to begin to slow the rise of the oceans . . . and to heal the planet.” Romney poked fun at this immeasurably ideological wordage by saying that, if he were elected, he would just want to “help you and your family.”

So, in this case, we have a politician saying something overly broad and translucent, then being criticized for saying it four years later by his opponent, who does not himself offer any actual remarks on what his opponent (or he himself) means by saying it. Neither issue really can be changed by one man, nor does either opinion really negate the other. Our planet can heal, and our families can be helped. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Things are said for the sake of saying things. More bumper stickers, more applause and better Nielsen ratings.

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