by Stan Cutler
My phone drives me nuts. I don’t really need a smartphone, since I spend most of my time in front of a desktop computer. I might switch back to a flip phone when the contract expires and allow the 21st century to proceed without me. What I didn’t realize when we bought the things was that a smartphone is a way for advertisers to stuff my pocket with junk mail. Nor did I realize how important dis-connectivity is to my sense of well-being.
If we are to believe the hype surrounding the digital age, connectivity is an unmitigated good, the more the better. Well, I beg to differ. Yes, I want some people to be able to get in touch with me, and me to them. But that’s it. If I want to buy something, I’d prefer to initiate the transaction.
Nor am I interested in the fact that my second cousin’s poodle went to the groomer or that some political candidate would like to upload a news release onto the computer in my pocket. Nor do I think my second cousin cares a whit about the guppies that have spawned in my fish tank. Live and let live, right? You do your stuff and I’ll do mine.
Since both the Republican and Democratic parties came to Philadelphia to hold the first televised presidential nominating conventions in 1948, electronic technologies have changed society, and the pace of change is accelerating. Our institutions evolve in years instead of decades. When the Democrats assemble at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in July 2016, they will likely be using their smartphones whenever they are not on camera. You have to wonder about the effect of database access on voting patterns, how a tweet is like an oration, about the effect of blogs on elections, and so on.
The top political consultant of his day once counseled his politician clients to craft messages that proved three personal qualities: their character (ethos), whether they made sense (logos), and whether they were sympathetic to their voters’ concerns (pathos). His name was Aristotle.
True, politics was much simpler then. Audience share could be counted by the number of people assembled in the open-air auditorium. Only one message could be delivered at a time, and the audience was in your space, face to face. Flash and dazzle, the graphics if you will, were supplied by hand gestures and changing tones of voice.
Aristotle’s democracy was so different from ours that it’s hard to see the similarities. But, if you’re running for office in the 21st century, you still have to accomplish those three objectives. For us, as voters, because they are still true, remembering Aristotle’s three pillars of rhetoric helps to filter out the noise of technology-driven change.
Modern campaigns organize rhetorical elements into data packets. Staff technicians store them as text objects in databases, accessible in pieces that candidates recombine depending on the type of the presentation: to reporters, in debates, in interviews, or in speeches. The point is that the costly data management of 21st century campaigning – and it’s become a major drain on campaign coffers – is in aid of valid concepts that are no less true today than in Aristotle’s time.
The diagram above shows the fundamental components of political speech, regardless of the issues of the day or the media through which the messages are delivered.
In 2015 and 2016, there will be a state primary cycle to nominate candidates for president and statewide offices. There will be a months-long TV series running on dozens of channels called “The Run-up to the General Election.” We’ll pay attention, to varying degrees, to the televisions and the little flat screens. And all of that will be to persuade us of the candidates’ character, intelligence, and sympathy to our concerns. Of these, Aristotle said, the components of ethos are the most persuasive.
No doubt, media will be significant factors in the outcomes of the next cycle. We live with sound bites, two-minute news segments, and 30-second commercials. But, if we are to make sense of the new politics, we will keep in mind that the software and the miniaturized media are tools – they are not the messages. Today’s political consultants, our 21st century Aristotles, make fortunes counseling candidates in ways to exploit the latest technologies. Armies of technicians will be hired and astronomical sums spent to maximize the value of the latest medium to deliver the messages.
As voters, we know this. We are not much troubled by the proliferation of glowing screens, accustomed already to TVs in restaurants, bathrooms, and gas stations. Even though I could personally do without the little computer in my pocket, most people like their smartphones and tablets because they are a convenient way to communicate, to be entertained, and to learn. But, in political terms, in terms of the health of our democracy, the technologies are very much a double-edged sword. The high costs of media and data management have transformed campaigns into exercises in buying power – the expense of a campaign can only be borne by the super wealthy. That’s not democracy – it’s oligarchy.
I am mindful of how new these technologies are andhow little time our society has had to adjust to new media of communication, entertainment and learning. Given how quickly they have entered our lives, our mistakes are understandable. But if we are going to correct them, we should commit ourselves to the goal of a healthier democracy. America is adaptive. We will change. But let’s change deliberately. Let’s first realize that our democracy is in a bad state right now. And let’s support reforms that Aristotle would endorse.