Politics in the age of TV

How shall we compare candidates: by their personal values or by their stand on issues?  This is the usual question that Americans ask in every election.  In the last US election, President Clinton appeared strong on issues, but was vulnerable on values.  Bob Dole, on the other hand, was oozing with values, but he seemed to grope for issues. The results suggest that the American voter opted to stick to the  issues, while keeping a close watch on Clinton’s personal values.

But so much for values and issues.  Now comes a top level  American political consultant, Mary Spillane, whom a Reuter report quotes as declaring: “Elections are won and lost on imagery.”  She owns a company literally called “Color Me Beautiful Image Consultants”, and has recently been advising candidates in the coming British parliamentary elections.  The advice she gives covers a broad range of items – what clothes to wear, what haircut is appropriate, whether a new pair of glasses will make a difference, and in general, how one should project oneself before the public.

Hers is an expertise that is congenial to the age of television, a medium that is more partial to appearance than to substance. Viewers indeed tend to watch more than listen.  And in that watching, the smallest detail can be magnified a thousand times and draw unnecessary attention and negative vibrations.  I remember how, on my first year on television, the printed socks I wore disturbed one viewer so much that she wrote to tell me that the winding lines on my Argyle socks looked like a pair of coiled snakes on my legs. Thereafter, I would not wear anything but black.

There is something about television that makes information given off more salient and enduring than information given.  Viewers will long remember how you looked and how you spoke, but will seldom  recall what you actually said.   I suppose that when two senses are engaged at the same time, one of them will always tend to dominate, and between the visual and the aural, the visual will always prevail.

Therefore it is not an accident that on television, talking heads are less appealing than video footage, and short succinct sound bites are immensely superior to any scholarly discourse.  TV, alas,  tends to sharpen our visual capacities, at the expense of our other sensibilities.

The signs that our politics has entered the age of TV are upon us.

The three leading contenders for the presidency – Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal, and Miriam Defensor – do not have solid political party organizations behind them, but this does not seem to bother them.  Their anointment comes from the mass media, not the political parties.  Media have allowed them to develop charisma, or what political marketing experts call “social attraction” — the capacity to impress or affect others by one’s mere physical presence.  It is an important aspect of image, but not the only one.

The theory says there are 2 other elements of image: credibility  and homophylyCredibility refers to a whole bunch of disparate items like moral uprightness, performance, intellectual capability, physical stamina, stand on issues, experience, etc. – in short, all the things that make one appropriate for the position sought.   The curious word, homophyly, on the other hand, pertains to empathy arising from similarities shared with the community.  It is what allows the public to immediately identify with a politician, and say, “she’s one of us.”

I cannot say what this theory is based on, or what its analytic value really is, but it is useful as a vocabulary for describing strategies in image-making.  The public perception, for example, is that Erap leads in social attractiveness (charisma) and homophyly (masa image), but needs to work very hard on his credibility.  This is his vulnerability, and we may expect that the attacks on him will zero in on his values, health, and intellectual capacity.

On the other hand, Gloria has credibility and charisma, but still lacks the “masa” image that Erap, through years of playing protector of the oppressed on film, has effectively cultivated.  The identification with Nora Aunor through sheer physical resemblance is a very clever shortcut to the goal of homophyly, but it may backfire once the real Nora Aunor starts campaigning for Erap.

Miriam has lots of charisma, and many women and young people identified with her and adopted her as one of their own in both the 1992 and 1995 elections.   But there are persistent questions about her credibility.  She has brains no doubt, but the metaphors of our culture, being what they are, make the association of brains with brain damage seem so natural.

I’m afraid the politics of image will continue to increase in importance in our society.  The ascendancy of TV as the preferred medium of political communication will compel a restructuring of the entire political process.  As image spin doctors and communications consultants become more important in campaigns, party ideologues and ward leaders will increasingly become marginal.  Political parties, which never really took off in our country, may further recede into irrelevance, as personal form completely eclipses the party platform.


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