Contemporary politics have been characterized as ‘image politics’, where style and personalities matter more than substance and policies. It seems elections today are as much, if not more, about likeability, than accomplishments. According to Marc Fisher in Saturday’s Washington Post article, once-popular incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty became a casualty of this phenomenon, ultimately losing to Vincent Gray in DC’s Democratic primary this week. Many residents confirmed that personality influenced their votes (Huffinton Post), opinions which were likely bolstered by Gray’s portrayal of Fenty as “arrogant and un-willing to work with people.”
The importance of image in politics is by no means a novel concept. Politicians have been shaking hands and kissing babies in public for decades. What has changed is the role of the media in contributing to public image, and how globalization is affecting how we view our elected representatives. Manuel Castells describes this as a Crisis of Legitimacy, where the job description of political representatives, now abstract and unpredictable, encourages “image-making” as a substitute for debating issues. This crisis is compounded by political media and politics of scandal. From a marketing or PR perspective, an image campaign is designed to create a specific identity in the minds of target audiences when they think of a product, a corporation, or an organization. Same goes for political campaigns, which also use paid advertising, publications, media relations and other communications to send the same, coordinated message to key voting audiences.
The message can be positive or negative depending on who is sending it, and usually works best when it can fit on a bumper-sticker. Enter, catchy slogans and coin-phrases, like “I’m a Maverick” and “Flip-Flopper.” The latter, used by critics of John Kerry in 2004 and perpetuated by the media, was so effective, that people all over the country were repeating it and accepting its negative implications at face value- as if, being open-minded enough to change your opinion when faced with new facts and evidence is an undesirable quality. Tuesday’s class discussion also highlighted the success of Sarah Palin as “Mama Grizzly” or “Hockey Mom,” and George W. Bush as the President that “you could have a beer with.”
I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t need elected officials, especially my President, to be just like me, in order to feel like they can properly represent my interests. I would aspire for him/her to be better and smarter than me. Yet somehow, even being educated can take on a negative connotation in media campaigning, with expressions like “the intellectual elite,” and implications that they are out of touch with the “real America.” This is an example of how media politics contributes to the “growing distrust of citizens vis-a-vis political parties, politicians, and the institutions of representative democracy” (Castells 2008). In our globalized world, where people feel distant and disconnected from policy-making, it seems voters are drawn to the candidate who does the best job of making them feel warm and fuzzy.
Presented with crafted images, people cast what Castells calls a ‘vote of confidence’ in ability. This raises the issue of voting as an expression of non-confidence. By this I mean that we vote for a candidate, just because they are NOT the other candidate. Fisher described Gray as being the “anti-Fenty” where “to be liked right now, it seems, all Gray has to do is be not-Fenty.” I fear that when we cast reactionary votes, we perpetuate the vicious cycle that encourages the image-campaigning, often showcased by sensationalist media.