If you are looking for more speculation on South Carolina, I can’t provide it. The fog of war is thick so close to election day. Is Newt Gingrich mounting a come-back? Will Rick Santorum consolidate the evangelicals? My money says the result will be as predicted: Mitt Romney wins as Ron Paul, Santorum and Gingrich split the opposition. There, I couldn’t help myself.
But in today’s post I want to pick a familiar scab and see if I can expose a reason why campaigns are so disconnected from governing. I came across this essay written by Joan Didion about the 1988 campaign.
In it she turns her outsider’s sensibility to the political ecosystem of candidates, operatives and journalists as they float inside a bubble from one campaign-staged event to the next. She notes how contrived and disconnected this show is from the audience. Didion writes, “These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.”
It is worth noting that some of the best political writing comes from observers not in the political or journalistic guild: Didion, Richard Ben Cramer, Garry Wills, David Foster Wallace. There are some practical reasons for this beyond their extraordinary and rare powers of observation: They don’t have to meet six deadlines a day and they aren’t dependent on their sources for six months, so they have more freedom to write what they actually think.
But back to my point: Modern campaigns are set pieces where all the players know their roles. It hasn’t changed much, if at all, since 1988. And while the bubble still hums with activity and tension, the interest in the show is waning for most Americans. Consider this fact: the culminating act of every presidential election is the convention speech, which is broadcast on every network. But, still, with this virtual roadblock of coverage, more than 70 percent of television viewers during that hour usually manage to tune to something else. One reason for this disinterest is the disconnection between the concerns of the professional political class and the concerns of the voters.
In the weeks ahead, I will offer some further thoughts on how we might make our campaigns more vital and relevant to the concerns of our citizenry. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours.