In my youth, I used to play miniature golf. There was this whole animated course to navigate – clown’s mouths, windmills, uneven terrain – and my ability to overcome these obstacles surely meant I was on the cusp of professional success. The local putt-putt served as my Augusta, and if I could shoot better than par, I believed I was on my way to a Masters title. But childhood fantasies crack and collapse before the harsh reality of a real course. See, making a good putt once in a while is only a small piece of the greater game of golf. It is not a long leap to see how this relates to politics.
When these candidates campaign for votes, they display a very specific skill set that is quite inadequate for governing. The ability to speak, to throw down a witty quip, to walk away from a debate unscathed – are these attributes indicative of a candidate’s ability to steer the national ship?
The truth is we used to have substantive debates. A small group of anchormen/women would dissect the candidate’s positions and we as a nation of voters would be more educated. We’d analyze the logic of their arguments, their vision, the details of their plans, and we’d gather around the dinner table to discuss the future of our nation. But things are different now.
Today, in a generation where 141 characters represents the national attention span, where cynicism dominates the landscape and the ruination of professional careers is more captivating than resolving national problems, the media is content to report sound bites. We hear who launched the best barb. We fact check to see who was lying. We search for the slightest crack in these stained-glass window candidates and then answer poll questions about honesty quotients and favorability.
This re-direction of attention – from substance to subtext – has consequences. First, in order to win debates, our candidates now emphasize their retort and rhetoric skills. Second, when candidates do have a few moments to speak, they spit out a Tweetable phrase and then direct voters to their website, where some ghostwriter has crafted voter-friendly paragraphs with about as much depth as a street gutter. And third, the next generation of voters gets the sense that this is how politics has always worked, and our future leaders will begin honing their own skills to focus on presentation over platform. And thus, the cycle will continue.
The point here is the teleprompter speech and debate repartee represent the miniature golf version of politics. Once in office, these candidates will have to deal with nuclear issues, looming debt, and the economic disparity crushing the country. They’ll have to resolve half a nation paying income taxes to support half a nation which can’t. They’ll be required to incentivize hiring, to alleviate poverty, to enhance education, and to establish trade policy. In other words, they’ll have to govern.
Whether the public’s attention drives the media content, or vice versa, perhaps it is time to look at things anew. What if debates revolved around vision? What if each candidate got fifteen minutes to articulate their vision for America? What if, instead of tete-a-tetes, we placed these candidates upon the stage and put their platforms and voting records on a big screen behind them? What if rather than questions like “what would you do if North Korea got a nuclear weapon?” we asked questions like, “Please list the specific incomes and liabilities you will need to bring our national debt down from 18 trillion dollars to zero.”
Then again, maybe the public wants things in brief. Maybe I’m a dinosaur who wants to sit and read full paragraphs with well-oiled arguments. Maybe the future will take place in a world of abbreviation. If so, FML.
I hope they have a clown’s mouth at Augusta!