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A Murky Krystal Ball
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

How Is It That Revelations & Scandals In U.S. Politics Don't Tell Us Anything New?

American voters have learned some interesting tidits about various politicians these past few weeks:

  • Krystal Ball, an unfortunately named but otherwise serious candidate for Congress in Virginia, once acted like a carefree twenty-something at a Halloween party (she's one of 500 million people who's on Facebook).
     
  • Jerry Brown, running for the governorship of California, uses obscenities when he thinks nobody is listening (like many of us), and his rival, Meg Whitman, hires people to do work without checking their papers when she thinks nobody is looking (like all of us, I'd expect).
     
  • Christine O'Donnell, a senatorial candidate from Delaware, freely and sincerely expresses wacky opinions (forget the substance of her beliefs; everyone believes what they believe).

This election appears to be nuttier and nastier than others that I can remember, but I wonder if that's true. Maybe candidates were always this way, only now there's the technology to capture and share that information?

In fact, maybe it's the candidates who are the only characters who've remained constant while everything else has changed?

  • The media used to ignore scandalous tidbits about candidates, especially if the information challenged their biases or the presumed expectations of their readers, listeners, or viewers (so, for instance, sexual affairs often weren't reported because, well, that was just what men were supposed to do).
     
  • Political parties were in the pay-for-play business long before it had a name; trading perks and promises for votes was what gave parties their purpose, and this usually meant making different ones -- often conflicting -- to different constituencies, depending on geography, gender, race, etc.
     
  • Voters were just about as varied, conniving, and sometimes just as insane as the candidates who pandered to them. Put differently, the qualities that might make a politician seem strange or unacceptable to someone who wouldn't ever vote for the person in the first place are likely the reasons why the base wouldn't ever vote for anyone else.

Nowadays, the media haven't just stopped filtering information but become an active solicitor of it, just as social tools have made it easier to create, find, and share. Political parties no longer have the authority to make blanket promises to special interests, insomuch that those groups have gotten evermore specialized so it's impossible to cut the deals that once got people elected. And voters...well, not only are they nutty but they've been conditioned by popular culture to demand more, understand less, and do next to nothing other than complain about what other voters are doing.

We might know more about candidates today, but I'm not sure we know anything we didn't already believe or expect, and that's both for the good and bad stuff. Funny how it works that way for most brands, too: more information tends to reaffirm preconceived notions. The days of 180 degree reversals of opinion based on some big revelation are probably behind us, lost in the minutiae of incessant little revelations.

It's only going to get worse. Give it a few years and there won't be a candidate who doesn't have some stupid photo trail on Facebook, embarrassing recordings captured by someone, or wacky ideas that turn the stomachs of those who don't share them. I think that's why their responses, generally, have been to either deny the proof when presented with it, or quickly pivot to blame it on somebody else. Again, the more detail voters learn, the less any of it stands out or does much to change their opinions.

Politicians follow in a proud tradition. While the world is changing, they keep doing what they do best. It's a murky and nutty business. Some things never change.

Added: 11th October 2010

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