I don’t watch much TV — Game of Thrones, Top Chef on DVR. That’s about it. So I’ve been pretty disconnected from the ongoing campaign, which is playing out primarily in 30 second advertisements. Then the other day, I turned on the box for a few minutes.
Heated charges, ominous voice-overs, dire warnings that the end cometh if Candidate X somehow attains public office.
There’s nothing new about this. We get it every election nowadays, and I was up to my ears in it myself when I ran for County office last year. But it gets worse with each cycle, as more money gets poured into the process.
It’s easy to understand why so many people feel disgusted by it all and swear off politics entirely. But if you want to be a responsible citizen in a democracy, that’s not a good option, so I got to thinking about how to sort through these ads and determine which are worth our attention.
First, step back for a moment and consider how, in an idealized world, we would cast our votes. In this fantasy scenario, every one of us would have perfect knowledge of how the election of one candidate or another would shape the actions of our government, we would be able to predict with perfect accuracy the consequences of our vote, and then we would cast ballots in order to best advance our own interests and values. In other words, we’d behave like rational actors in classic economics theory.
Well, even if such perfect knowledge were attainable (and it’s not), who has the time? So, in the real world, we use short-cuts. We vote for the candidate who belongs to our party, or the candidate who was more cogent in a debate, or the candidate we met at the supermarket, or the candidate who seems like less of a jerk. All those 30-second ads are aimed at influencing our shorthand, sometimes emotional, impulses.
And the more I reflected on those ads, the more I concluded that the usual standards for judging them — whether they are positive or negative, whether they are nasty or polite, even whether they are 100% truthful or cut some corners with the facts — kind of miss the point.
The better standard is whether an ad moves us closer to or farther away from that ideal, perfect understanding. Does it connect our vote to future actions and consequences, or does it draw our attention away from future actions and consequences. In short, does the ad clarify our real choice, or does it instead obscure our real choice?
How can you tell one from the other? There’s no foolproof method, but there are a couple of tests that make sense to me.
One, is the ad mainly about who a candidate is or mainly about what a candidate has done and will do? Anyone can make claims about character, pro or con, and such claims rarely have much to do with the responsibilities of an office-holder. Give more weight to ads that focus on deeds and plans.
And, two, is the ad about consequential topics or about minor side subjects? If you’re on the wrong side of the big issues, you try to make the election a referendum on the trivial. So beware of ads that focus on second or third rank nonsense with short-term emotional punch and no long-term relevance.
Apply these tests, and ads can start to look very different. A nasty commercial that goes after Candidate X for positions on important public policy may be unpleasant, but it can help clarify our choices. A gauzy, upbeat commercial featuring the testimonials of Candidate Y’s family may be nice, but it can obscure our choices.
Of course, a lot of this is a matter of opinion. It would be hard, for example, for a media outlet to subject political ads to an objective clarity-meter, like the more familiar (and largely ineffectual) truth-meters. But I still find this to be a helpful framework for my own use, and maybe it will be helpful for you, too.
So next time you see an ad for or against a politician, before deciding whether you agree or disagree with the position expressed, before deciding whether the ad leads you to think better or worse of the candidates, ask yourself a more basic question: does the topic of the ad even matter in the first place. Does it matter to your life, to your family’s life, or the life of your community and country.
If the answer is no, then tune it out. And if enough of us do just that, it won’t necessarily make our politics less nasty or less polarized, but it might make our politics more relevant, and that would be a step forward.