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An Informed Electorate

The 1940's marked the change from old style campaigns to what we are used to now - mass media manipulation and sound bites instead of substance.

I have recently been reading the second volume of Robert A. Caro’s series of books on Lyndon Johnson, Means of Ascent.  The fourth volume was just recently published but I decided to start from the beginning, hence I am in the second volume now. 

Caro talks in this book about how the form of campaigning changed during the 1940’s  He points to a race for United States Senate in 1948 as one in which a new politics took hold and transformed how campaigns were conducted ever since.

The case in point was Johnson’s campaign for the Senate against a very popular Texas Governor, Coke Robert Stevenson.  He campaigned on his political principles by riding from town to town all over Texas, meeting and greeting people in small groups or individually with little fanfare. New campaign tactics were beginning to take hold, however, and Johnson employed them to the maximum extent available in those days.  Referred to as “electronic politics, technological politics, media politics” by Caro, Johnson used them all.  He employed scientific polling, organizational techniques, use of advertising firms and public relations specialists.  All of this was to mold an image of the
candidate as a well-versed, articulate person whose speeches were shaped to
match the interests of his audience. This kind of media manipulation is one that we all recognize well in the current age of campaigning. 

Today, according to Caro, “television sound bites and commercials make and break candidates, and substance fades all but completely before the power of image.” ( italics added).  The point being made is that the result of this type of campaigning is the end of one of the important precepts of our democracy.  The employment of the sophisticated techniques of media manipulation really means the end of the concept of free choice by an informed electorate.  This year’s Presidential campaign will reach new peaks for media manipulation particularly as the possibilities are enhanced by further enhanced by the astronomical financing available.  We all understand what the campaigns are doing by employing these techniques but how do we cut through it all to be truly informed?  Is an informed electorate possible any more?

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