Thursday, September 24, 2009

Goldilocks Politics and Media Manipulation

President Obama has pushed for some idealized degree of middle ground between two parties and between two competing ideological groups. Though I never doubted his sincerity, I admit that at the beginning I was highly skeptical of its feasibility. Even so, I was willing to entertain the notion for a while. Since then, riding the schizophrenic tides of high and low that typify media coverage, I have variously believed that compromise in every contentious matter was both highly possible and highly impossible. In these strange days, perhaps we're all grasping about in the dark trying to find a substantive thread of analysis that satisfactorily pulls everything altogether into a neat conclusion. Perhaps we're all trying to find a development or breaking news story that doesn't contradict the one that came before it. Our world is too complicated and too interconnected to ever be easily encapsulated into one narrative, but many try anyway.

As it stands, I often wonder if the perfect politician, the perfect President, the perfect Congress, and the perfect Supreme Court justice even exist in anything more than the mind. I'm not defending those who believe that consensus process means removing one's spine in the process, but positing whether we ask too much from those who we place in positions of authority. From my perspective, it seems that immediately after we elect another President, he enjoys a brief honeymoon period of no more and no less than three months. During this brief Christmas truce in the ongoing War Between the Cultures, a period full of no overt hostilities, sometimes misrepresented as bipartisan good feeling rather than a temporary ceasefire, the half of this nation that voted for him feels warm fuzzies and the other half that did not temporarily holds its tongue (if not its nose). Those who oppose him limit direct criticism because they don't have enough evidence on hand to oppose policy decisions that haven't even been put into force yet, while those who support him entertain wild delusions of best case scenario and thrust pet issue after pet issue into a plate not designed, nor large enough to accommodate them all.

One must admit that there is a kind of laughable lunacy about the proceedings. A President can't even much enjoy even this highly limited Era of Good Feeling before before the media has advanced a story---long cued up and long written---specially designed for the occasion, questioning whether the honeymoon is still ongoing, and if so, how long it will last. Next, talking heads and pundits profess their opinion on the matter, further muddying the waters. Last, feeling the need to both justify itself and to appear as though it is merely reflecting the existing currents of viewers and voters, the media then conducts highly subjective internalized polls to support the conclusions it has drawn. In pointing back to average Americans, its stated intent is to provide some contrast and indication of what popular opinion might be on the issue. That we might all be thoroughly confused by the end strikes me as not particularly hard to understand.

Imagine if you were promoted to middle management in some nameless corporate entity. For the first three months on the job, each of the co-workers under your control treated you with reverence and respect. Assume then that another department entitled the Polling and Media Department started sending out e-mails to your employees, asking them whether or not they believed that they would always feel a sense of loyalty and comfort with you at the helm. You were never told that this was happening and your employees felt no compulsion to inform you of the process. Then, let's assume that you had to begin making some difficult decisions based on the effects of the recession. This recession, which you didn't create, still required you to deal with its effects. In a very short period of time you recognized that you were going to have to make some unpopular decisions. These involved cutting salaries, considering whether or not certain people needed to be let go for the sake of eliminating cost, and pondering whether existing workers would have their hours cut to prevent the company from completely going bankrupt. At this point, the Polling and Media department sent out a fresh wave of e-mails asking your employees how they felt about you now, if their perspectives had changed since you took control, and whether or not they blamed you for it. This data was then e-mailed back to your employees and found its way into your first performance evaluation, whereby you were asked by your boss why you hadn't done a sufficient job of keeping company morale high.

Do we really believe in the Goldilocks ideal?

Author Christopher Booker characterizes this as the "dialectical three", where "the first is wrong in one way, the second in another or opposite way, and only the third, in the middle, is just right." Booker continues "This idea that the way forward lies in finding an exact middle path between opposites is of extraordinary importance in storytelling".[13]

The Goldilocks Principle describes a situation which is just right in a manner akin to that portrayed in the tale. The concept prevails not only in literature, but also in astronomy and economics. A Goldilocks planet is neither too close to nor too far from a star to rule out life, while a Goldilocks economy describes one which is sustaining moderate growth and low inflation, which is seen as allowing for a market friendly monetary policy.

Every political pundit returns to the idea that aiming for the middle is the most sensible approach and that catering to the base is the way to lose Independent and Moderate support. That might be so, but conventional wisdom in politics, I have learned, might be conventional but often it isn't wise. In times like these where so many established precedents are no longer valid or at least no longer relevant, one would think the smartest perspective would be to formulate new wisdom and new rules. With so much in flux, however, it is challenging to come up with anything that can be set in stone or provides any kind of lasting comfort or guidance. What I do know is that it appears that the leaders of our party are just as confused as we are and if there is any saving grace to be found, it is that the party of opposition is more confused than us.

Ignore what the media has told us. The Republican party is not dead, nor was it ever on life support. It has not magically revived itself, either. Anyone can coalesce support around a common enemy. Indeed, that was how we elected Obama in the first place, and how we won control of Congress two years before that. Rather than believing that in between two extremes is a wholly satisfying middle ground, it might be more sensible for us to hold fast to our own virtues as we understand them, rather than being blown to and fro in the wind. We are not politicians and we can stand firm in what we believe without fear of censure or losing our job. The skill set of a politician requires a good bit of dexterity that borders on deception and slight-of-hand. We ought to concede that our expectations, impatience, and demands make an impact while still not forgetting how wealthy contributors, corporations, and lobbyists often dictate policy, as well. Polls, experts, and pundits do not often speak for us and they probably never will. One cannot measure a person's internal convictions with numbers, percentages, and figures. For as often as they get it right, they often get it totally wrong.

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