How are media incentives changing American politics?

How are media incentives changing American politics? Lance Strate on the paradoxical tension between transparency and democracy.
The Signal
The Signal
“A huge part of why this institution doesn’t work well is because we have cameras everywhere,” U.S. Senator Ben Sasse said of the United States Congress last week during the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson—President Joe Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court. The purpose of hearings like this is, of course, to vet a nominee’s qualifications as a judge. Yet in the media spotlight, Jackson, the first Black woman ever nominated to the Court, faced a range of questions, at times hostile, about politically charged topics, such as the academic framework of critical race theory, the definition of woman, and child sexual abuse. “We should recognize,” said Sasse—a Republican who ultimately voted against Jackson’s confirmation—“that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities.” Sasse’s argument—made during the hearings with the cameras on—is that episodes of theatrical confrontation, rehearsed speech, and bad faith among his fellow Republican senators weren’t so much driven by their political agenda, or personal character, as by the “camera opportunities” of the proceedings. It’s a dynamic we all might recognize in political life. But how exactly does it work?
Lance Strate is a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. Strate agrees that the performances of Republican senators at Jackson’s hearing say less about their political or personal tendencies and more about the media ecosystem around them. As Strate sees it, the crux of this reality is that politicians—and not just in America but around the world—are increasingly performing for multiple audiences, in more and more spaces, with less privacy and fewer opportunities to do the work of government without being recorded. The expanding presence of media in politics, and the growing incentive for politicians to use it, may give citizens more information about elected officials—including a better sense of what they’re for and who they are—but it also alters what they end up doing. Politicians know they need to take advantage of the media ecosystem, Strate says, but the media ecosystem can end up changing their behavior in ways they don’t plan—and citizens don’t recognize.
Graham Vyse: Do you see the performances in U.S. Senate’s confirmation hearings for Judge Jackson as normal business now, or did anything about them strike you as novel?
Lance Strate: I don’t think there was anything exceptionally novel. They reflected a continuing intensification of the biases of electronic media, the dramatic acting out of political positions, and the use of cameras for purposes other than what the situation calls for. Those hearings were supposed to be an interview process to determine whether Jackson was qualified to sit on the Supreme Court, but much of what went on had nothing to do with that. Senators were going for sound bites to be played on news programs later on, which involved being theatrical, being confrontational, expressing an ideological position, and often making speeches without asking questions.
When Republican senators ask something ridiculous like, Can you provide a definition for the word woman? they know Jackson isn’t going to give the kind of reply conservatives are looking for. [Jackson answered that she wasn’t a biologist and couldn’t provide a definition of woman, adding that part of her job as a judge was to assess disagreements over definitions.] She’s going to give legalistic answers, and they’re going to sound evasive, even though they’re perfectly appropriate for the situation and for someone in her profession. They’re also going to play poorly on television.
Republican senators are trying to look like they’re standing up for principle—like they’re principled interrogators—and make her look evasive and suspect in the eyes of their audience.
Vyse: Now, the Democratic senator Cory Booker gave celebrated Jackson and her accomplishments during the hearings. A lot of her admirers found that moving, but it would also be an example of performing rather than asking the kind of vetting questions the proceedings are for?
Strate: Absolutely. The Democratic senator Jon Ossoff also asked her to talk about her family’s background in law enforcement—and that’s great, but is it really relevant? Yes, you get speechmaking and softball questions too.
Vyse: What are the main drivers of this kind of performative politics, do you think?
Strate: There’s always been a performative component to politics, especially in democratic politics, where you want to appeal to audiences. Still, it used to be that this kind of thing took place in a limited set of situations, when politicians addressed the public. Deliberations were held privately behind closed doors—in what Lin-Manuel Miranda would call the “room where it happens.” Nowadays it’s very difficult to find a room where it happens—a room that’s not bugged, or a room from which people don’t divulge a lot of what went on. There’s a lot to be said for transparency, and there have always been reporters, but there’s something about the cameras that brings out the dramatic.
Vyse: —and sometimes “jackassery,” as Sasse put it?
Strate: Yes, that’s a perfectly legitimate term. Mugging for the cameras becomes very difficult to avoid if you want to be successful in politics, especially in presidential politics and, to a lesser extent, congressional politics.
Louisville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Louisville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
More from Lance Strate at The Signal:
When people know they’re being scrutinized, they tend to behave in more honest and principled ways, knowing that bad behavior will be apparent and that they may be shamed and condemned for it. At the same time, elected officials need a certain measure of private space to negotiate, make deals, and have the freedom to engage with their political opponents. Not having that becomes a problem, especially given the other big effect of the media environment—increased political polarization and ideological separation.”
Television was unprecedented in the way it created a shared information environment. Prior to TV—and broadcasting generally—the American republic was built on a foundation of typography, with the printing press as the basis of the media environment. Early on, political parties printed their own documents; later, you had large newspapers, but they had partisan leanings. The press had a local bent, because newspapers were largely city-based, and then you had local face-to-face communication mediated through political parties. TV made it so that parties weren’t in control of politicians anymore.”
We want transparency, but we don’t necessarily want monitoring. We should know all about our leaders—who they are, what their financial situations are, where they get their campaign donations. That’s about giving citizens information. But when they’re constantly on camera—as they are during congressional hearings—that’s when we get the kind of jackassery and self-consciousness that erodes democratic life.”
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