Sunday, February 16, 2020

Politics as spectator sport.

Does it seem to you like this presidential campaign has been going on forever? It does to me. The first debate among the Democratic presidential candidates was in June. It was a two-night event because they couldn't cram all of the 20 candidates who qualified onto the stage at once. Remember that? Tons of candidates have already dropped out -- and we're just now, finally, getting into primary season.

As usual, the media are treating the campaign like a horse race. Pundits quote the latest polls and project a winner, never mind that the general election is almost nine months away. And the talking heads pontificate endlessly on which candidate is most electable, never mind that the most reliable indicator of electability is winning the election.

It's almost like the candidates' platforms don't matter. The players are warming up and the bookies have set the odds. Place your bets, people! And may the best horse -- uh, candidate -- win!

marjan4782 | Deposit Photos

I'm nowhere near the first person to notice the way we treat politics like a spectator sport in this country. But there's a political scientist at Tufts University named Eitan Hersh who maintains a lot of us treat it like a hobby. And he wrote a book about it. It's called Politics is for Power, and it got him an interview on NPR's Hidden Brain this past week.

Hersh says a lot of us watch news shows and "news" shows on TV not just to be informed, but also to be entertained. The line has blurred between politicians and celebrities -- helped along by our current celebrity president, of course, but it's been blurring for a long time. President Reagan was an actor before he moved into the White House. And I could name others. Remember the WWF wrestler who became governor of Minnesota?

The problem, though, is we've become interested in political figures the same way we are in celebrities. We're not tuning in for substantive coverage of the issues, but for what amounts to gossip.

Hersh also observes people are more interested in the presidential race than they are in their local government. He makes it sound like that's a new thing, but I first noticed it at least 30 years ago. It's too bad, too, because while local issues are often boring (if you have trouble sleeping, I recommend attending a meeting of your local planning and zoning board -- you'll be snoring in no time), they're the ones that have the most direct impact on your life.

It's not that Congress and the President don't make decisions that affect you. They do. But if your city council decides to replace the storm sewers on your block, that will hit you a lot quicker.

Hersh says he thinks of politics as neither horse race nor hobby, but as a way to help people have a better life. For my money, that beats celebrity gossip any day.

These moments of bloggy armchair politicking have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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