In 2010, Luis Fishman Zonzinski (known popularly as Luis Fishman) ran for President of the Republic of Costa Rica. He represented the Christian Social Unity Party, PUSC, somewhat ironically considering he’s Jewish. Fishman was the replacement candidate for Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier, a former President of Costa Rica and then-candidate for the PUSC until his imminent incarceration for corruption interrupted his plans for a return to glory. Halfway through the campaign, with his poll numbers languishing and trust in his party at an all-time low, Fishman decided to roll the dice. In addition to his existing slogan, “Me Da Seguridad,” (literally ‘he gives me security’), he decided to unfurl a new and strangely forthright motto: “Luis Fishman, El Menos Malo.” The Lesser Evil.
Over the past 32 years, youth participation in United States Presidential elections has dwindled. According to the Washington Post, the percentage of the electorate made up by voters aged 18-29 hit its global max of 24% in 1984, about 60% of which voted for President Reagan. It fell almost steadily (a slight blip being President Clinton’s ‘92 election) and bottomed out at 17% during Bill Clinton’s ‘96 re-election, where it would stay through both of President Bush Jr’s victories. Here’s where it gets good: contrary to popular belief, President Obama’s victory over John McCain was not America’s youths standing up and being counted. Indeed, between W’s victory in 2004 and Obama’s victory in 2008, there was only a 1% increase in 18-29 year old voters, though of those voters, two thirds did so for the President. Even at its peak, youth participation accounted for less than a quarter of the total votes, which begs the question: why don’t the remaining Millenials care enough to vote for the ‘Leader of the Free World’? The main hindrances, to my line of thinking, are misinformation (or sometimes lack of access to misinformation) and that old, ever-present irony.
The tangle that the news media and politicians have weaved themselves into has made it difficult to penetrate to the hearts of matters. The general perception is that Fox News and Fox Media are the propaganda arm of the GOP, and MSNBC and the New York Times are part of the matching apparatus of the Liberals. Bias is virtually unrestricted and very-much one-sided in the political reporting for all of these entities, which makes their collective insistence that they are presenting balanced reporting leaves one fairly puzzled. And that’s not all: they’re also racing each other! It’s easy to understand the weariness of a perpetual race, so even if the truth is not obfuscated by political leaning, it could just get lost somewhere in the hasty fact-checking. This makes getting to the heart of matters a much harder task and misinformation runs rampant, and why a portion of the politically-savvy audience is outsourcing their critical reasoning to comedians, notably to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert at The Colbert Report. It has become their self-appointed duty to pounce on explicit incidences of hypocrisy, be they in the political sphere or, more often than not, in the popular media’s coverage of the political sphere. As recently as May 2012, Stewart averaged 1.34 million viewers daily in the coveted 18-49 demographic, (possessor of our 18-29 voters), more than any other late night talk show, with Colbert clocking in at just under a million daily for the same range. According to a 2010 Pew Research study, though most people watch the Daily Show and Colbert Report expressly for entertainment, more and more people are turning to Stewart for views and opinion than the Fox-owned Wall Street Journal and the New York Times combined; Colbert, similarly earns more interest in the views and opinions on his show than CNN and Fox News combined. All of this indicates that while everyone may get their headlines elsewhere, a large portion of the collective analysis, not to mention the gargantuan portion of the entertainment, is coming through these, for lack of a better term, media translators. Maybe it’s because they’re not racing. Yet.
Why do we need translation? Why are we insulating ourselves from our political establishment? One obvious answer is a lack of trust. Growing up learning about Presidential history is like a lifelong lesson in the fallibility of man: Obama and Guantanamo, Bush Jr’s WMD’s, Clinton’s quibbling over the definition of ‘is’, reading Bush Sr’s lips, Nixon, FDR interned the Japanese, Honest Abe suspended Habeus Corpus and Andrew Jackson simply wouldn’t stop killing Native Americans even when the Supreme Court told him to stop. Now we add social media, the perpetual news race, and campaign contributions, i.e. Super PACs, the Presidential Election finds itself, in the public eye, at the crossroads of those two old axioms: Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely and Money is the Root of All Evil. Unable to know the truth, due to the aforementioned obfuscation, perception becomes paramount. Yet, paradoxically, we all also know about the premium on perception, too! So we find ourselves at a sort of ironic stalemate, one that David Foster Wallace brilliantly illustrates in “Up, Simba,” a piece he wrote for Rolling Stone detailing his journey with John McCain in his during his 2000 Republican Primary campaign. After hearing about one of his opponents’ staff calling and badgering the too-young-to-vote son of an audience member at one of his Town Hall meetings, McCain became upset, and even ending the whole meeting early.
Is it possible that some part of McCain could realize that what happened to Chris Duren is very much to his own political advantage, and yet he’s still such a decent, uncalculating guy that all he feels is horror and regret that a kid was disillusioned? Was it human compassion that made him apologize first instead of criticizing the Shrub [George W. Bush, ed.], or is McCain maybe just shrewd enough to know that Mrs. D.’s story had already nailed bush to the wall and that by apologizing and looking distraught McCain could help underscore the difference between his own human decency and Bush’s uncaring Negativity? Is it possible that he really had tears in his eyes? Is it (ulp) possible that he somehow made himself get tears in his eyes because he knew what a decent, caring, non-Negative guy it would make him look like?
These final lines appear to be heading towards an infinite regression, and this cognitive dissonance, DFW argues in this and other essays such as E Unibus Pluram, is a symptom of our ironic detachment, a resentment and distrust for authority figures and the myriad of lies perception can tell. Simply put, it’s hard to know what to believe, even in the midst of a ‘human moment.’
Jon Stewart approaches this ennui like a typical satirist, attacking with the double barrels of irony and sincerity, and in his sincerity he’ll sometimes reveal a liberal lean. Colbert’s approach is a little more cunning. By affecting a self-important Conservative pundit, a la Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck (both of whom enjoy a generous portion of that view/opinion interested audience to the tune of roughly 1 in 3 viewers), his sincerity and irony become harder to discern. The answer, I think, is they’re not mutually exclusive, and whichever’s funnier. In the end, these shows are Entertainment, and the standards of truth they’re held to are, at best, the same ones today’s journalists are being held to, the very standards which makes up the fodder for the Late Night talk show.
An alternative to our translation insulation is to try and play the game. Considering the sources and the issues raised above, the only sure way to get closest to the facts is painting the picture via multiple sources. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of means with which to keep abreast of Latest Headlines, most people tending to, in addition to those listed above, network news, the radio, daily newspapers, internet and social media. These are not immune to the biases, in fact some of them revel in it. Thus, a multitude are needed. The more sources, the more time and energy it takes to check, the less enthused one gets after sifting through sometimes conflicting data. Not all young people working or going to school have this requisite time/energy, not to mention there are those without the funds to access some, if not all of these portals to (mis)information. At this point, even seasoned political analysts find the waters murkier than they would like. Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul Krugman, in his new book, “End this Depression Now!” details his outlook for the American economy amidst the current political environment. Ever the Keynesian, he makes it very clear that the limited inflation solution he proposes would be and in fact has been shot down by Candidate Mitt Romney.
It’s not clear, however, whether Romney believes any of the things he is currently saying. His two chief economic advisers, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, are committed Republicans but also quite Keynesian in their views about macroeconomics. Indeed, early in the crisis Mankiw argued for a sharp rise in the Fed’s inflation target, a proposal that was and is anathema to most of his party. His proposal caused the predictable uproar, and he went silent on the issue. But we can at least hope Romney’s inner circle holds views that are much more realistic than anything the candidate says in his speeches, and that once in office he would rip off his mask, revealing his true pragmatic/Keynesian nature. [italics added for emphasis]
The italicized statement is about as close as Krugman comes to making a joke, but this joke sheds some light on what looks like an interesting game. You pick a teammate based on statements they make, any finite number of them, the catch being that you know each one of them is lying about at least one thing. I’m no game theorist, but after a little while, it seems like could shift very easily back and forth from prospective teammate to outright opponent, making for a complex system, and, simplistically speaking, a lot of chaos - and all this without even accounting for statements made honestly, but for some reason or another cannot keep their promises, (e.g. can’t get a bill through congress, troubles with the supreme court, etc). For those of us without the stomach for political intrigue (at least not for the non-fictional kind), this add new and dizzying dynamics to an already labyrinthine system which leads to a curious resignation.
The final route, evidently quite popular amongst young voters, is the path of least resistance. In a recent Harvard poll, little more than half of Millenials were “definitely going to vote,” with another 16% “likely to vote.,” which, put together, makes roughly the number of young voters actually registered to vote. Of those not registered, referred to by the Pew Research Center as ‘Bystanders,’ over half are under thirty years old, and of the bystanders, 39% say that they never vote, (read: disenfranchised), and half are making less than $30,000 annually. These people are the subject of a raging debate in Washington, and yet they exude indifference when confronted with the chance to ‘participate’ in the discussion about their fate. The situation bears all the hallmarks of trust issues, and with today’s requisite Sisyphean quest for a straight answer, it’s hard to put all the blame on these disinterested voters.
Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama, “Newsroom,” (the past-news angle of which has an air of Captain Hindsight about it) makes the case that we lack a moral center, a Cronkite or Murrow to trust, someone not insulated from the media-at-large but ready to speak truth to BS and sense to idiots. It may indeed be the case that we’re all adrift in a sea of moral relativism with no anchor, or at least none ready to brave the waters. This is a problem with no easy solution, and there are some in the political establishment who may consider the whole thing to be a boon. But how is it not a problem when so many young people do not care enough to even choose a leader? Was Luis Fishman right? Is a specific candidate the lesser evil, and the truth guessing game we play with them and the media? Or is apathy the lesser evil, as opposed to its expectant glove? For now, maybe I’ll just wait for Stewart and Colbert to come back from vacation and tell me.