One of the more interesting things about a US presidential election is the emphasis on image and style as a mechanism for influencing voters. Although there are healthy discussions on issues such as foreign policy and the economy, much time is spent on making sure that the candidates look good and appear "presidential''. It's a phenomenon that probably has its genesis in the famous 1960 TV debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Nixon found out to his dismay that a candidate can lose considerable support if his or her smile is not engaging enough.
A few years ago Time magazine noted that "it's now common knowledge that without the nation's first televised debate Kennedy would never have been president. Nixon, pale and underweight from a recent hospitalisation, appeared sickly and sweaty, while Kennedy appeared calm and confident". Some have argued that this preoccupation with image has allowed politicians to ignore serious matters and focus almost exclusively on petty, insignificant issues.
There was a hilarious skit on the Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart on the Comedy Channel just after the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. An audience of "undecided'' voters were asked to comment on the debate as it took place on television and to identify the issues that concerned them. One person chose to comment on the colour of the ties that the contenders wore while another said that President Obama looked more comfortable sitting on a stool than his opponent. The comments continued in this vein until someone suggested that it would be better to turn off the volume completely since what the speakers were saying was distracting the audience.
In the end the volume was muted and the audience continued to monitor and comment on the debate without listening to any of the ideas and plans of the candidates. They simply focused on the clothes, the gestures and the facial expressions to determine their choice for leader of the free world.
It may have been part of a comedy routine but much of it reflected the tendency to substitute trivia for meaningful discussion of critical issues. When important matters eventually surface during a debate, loyalists and sycophants immediately head for the "spin room'' in an effort to persuade the audience that what they heard was not what was said.
The spin room is a site that is provided at the debate venue where the media can get responses from various political pundits including their thoughts on who won or lost. USA Today recently noted that "the spin room gives both sides a chance to bend the narrative in their direction in front of television cameras and hundreds of reporters". "Bending the narrative'' seems to have become a principal technique of political campaigning and there is no compelling need for facts and empirical data. In Trinidad and Tobago there are no election debates so there is no need for a spin room although our Parliament sometimes bears a close resemblance.
While the spin room is merely a physical space, there are many other strategies in the spin process that determine how effectively a narrative can be bent. One of these is the use of so-called "independent'' commentators to reinforce the partisan views that were espoused during the debate. These supposedly objective analysts often include representatives of professionals bodies, academics from various backgrounds as well as the occasional religious leader. Politicians are always keen to add self-proclaimed messengers of God to their list of supporters.
Despite claims to the contrary negative campaigning has also become a hallmark of US presidential elections. Every sordid detail about an opponent is resurrected and even when there is nothing negative to highlight, the spin doctors will invent an issue out of nothing. Persistent questions about the validity of President Obama's US citizenship fall into this category. In T&T we know it as "mauvais langue'' and politicians will sling mud at each other in the most obscene manner hoping that something will stick and they will gain some cheap political mileage.
Another strategy involves the art of distraction and it is indeed an art. Professional magicians have had to master this skill since it is one of the main tools of their trade. So that if the cards are hidden in the sleeve of his right arm, the magician tries to keep the audience looking intently at his left arm.
In politics the challenge is to deflect public attention from matters that may be controversial and/or embarrassing and to highlight less problematic issues. Sometimes the objective is not merely to bend the narrative but to avoid it completely. Where cynicism is high, however, spin doctors have to be extremely skilful to ensure that the public continues to focus elsewhere.
If they are clumsy and incompetent then the attempts at distraction may only serve to make people more suspicious and distrustful. It's like the performer who bungles his act and has the audience laughing in stitches instead of staring in awe.
In the world of politics, spin is of little use when the public can easily see through the machinations and the gimmicks. Back on stage and under the glare of public scrutiny there is nothing more tragic than a magician whose tricks no longer fool the audience.
—Richard Braithwaite is a