Last week’s total solar eclipse timed out at 160 seconds. It might have passed quickly, but it was a sensation in a nation that needs a distraction.
It is hard to say when the eclipse of our relatively stable and orderly political order began. It will be neither short nor salutary.
Scholars will take apart the political events of recent years. Dozens of questions will be asked and answered and the few who pay attention to political science will enjoy the inevitable debates about the various perspectives; but, what about the rest of us?
Voters and candidates alike are not unlike little plastic figures that are moved around on chess boards. And, for the most part, they are pawns being manipulated by cynical political operatives. Those operatives who were once subordinated by political leadership are now the dominant forces. The leaders have abdicated and those (us) who are supposed to choose between the pretenders and contenders are buffeted by the manipulators.
The results are frightening — democracy debased. The tools are well known, but their collective power is underestimated.
The playing field reflects a large and intrusive central government being used to shape and re-shape our social and economic lives — the stakes are high. The so-called political leaders, feigning an interest in what voters want, commission polls and the questions are largely made up of words and phrases that have the potential to make us mad.
The poll results are then turned over to the marketers who helped shape the survey. The marketers, using advanced computer models, categorize us by demographic traits and the emotions that we reveal through both our online and offline activities. They then go to work raising money and swaying opinion. Their messages largely engage our emotions, not our brains.
We become subjects on a game board of identity politics. As we wittingly or unwittingly self-identify, we become targets of highly emotional appeals. Every medium is used to make and reinforce the appeal. And since the news media is often an extension of identity politics, the targeted audiences are easy to find.
Social media, a relatively new vehicle in this war of images and words, is an especially powerful tool in the minds and hands of the manipulators. It is used to both identify and animate, and often we are provoked to pass the outrage along.
Washington marches provide an interesting context for today’s political engagement. These marches are organized by emotion. We leave the federal budget to the lobbyists, while we march on the pros and cons of abortion or the right to bear arms. We might be sinking in a bog of debt, but our representatives know where we stand on the “hot button” issues.
We now have a president who specializes in pushing emotional buttons. He is the ultimate identity politician.
It is hard to know whether Donald Trump is the last stage in our weakness. It is hard to know whether identity politics that closes minds and campuses represents the most elevated fever or not.
It is, however, clear that Americans need new leadership — voters need thoughtful, not scripted, choices. But, if we the voters allow ourselves to be herded into the cattle chutes of identity politics, the debasement of democracy will continue.
Al Sikes’ leadership helped shape the arc of 21st century communication technologies from positions as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and then President of Hearst New Media. In 2004, the Manhattan Institute chose Sikes as one of eight winners of the Social Entrepreneurship Award for having founded READ ALLIANCE, which trains teenagers to tutor children with reading deficiencies. Sikes second book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow was recently published by Koehler Books.