Freakshows, the 2012 Election, and the Politics of Reassurance

By Sofía Baliño, editor-in-chief “Don’t over-read what just happened.” The midterm elections earlier this month, which have been both hailed and vilified as a “seismic shift” in the nature of American politics, might not have the major ramifications that so many policy wonks and talking heads predict. That was the message that the panelists at this year’s Zeidman Memorial Colloquium on Politics and the Press told a sympathetic Duke audience last week.

CNN’s John King, Politico editor-in-chief and cofounder John F. Harris, and Duke professors Sunshine Hillygus and Philip Bennett (also former managing editor of the Washington Post) led the Sanford-hosted discussion, in which the four conducted a post-mortem on the 2010 midterm elections. With candor, analysis, and a bit of wry humor, they broke down the events leading up to the November 2nd elections, and promised that the 2012 election is still very much up in the air, despite suggestions to the contrary.

Listening to them speak about “freakshow politics,” and the media’s challenge of covering what’s relevant (and not just what will get ratings), it brought home how our political system has turned into a reality show of its own. Shouting matches have replaced discussions about substance – yet no matter how aware of it the public is, we keep watching.

We complain about the Sarah Palins, the Christine O’Donnells, the Joe Wilsons who all get much more media coverage than we think they deserve. We make a big deal about Bristol Palin somehow managing to stay in the running for the Dancing With The Stars trophy. Yet we keep watching. But rather than spending our time focusing on the absurd, maybe we should take heed of John King’s suggestion that we start complaining about the issues instead.

As students of policy, we are being trained to make better decisions in a politically-charged context, and taught that we cannot allow politics to drive policy (though neither can we ignore its impact). Yet we live in a world where Democrats have to “reassure” their opponents that they are not socialists trying to steal their freedoms, and where Republicans have to battle the stereotype of being gun-toting fanatics. We live in a world that makes our future jobs and missions far more challenging to execute properly.

If the 2012 election is really still up in the air, as our panelists told us, then we need to return to the policies at stake, and bring back the concept of civilized discourse: of recognizing the merits of both sides’ arguments, and using them to make our society stronger. We need to recognize the value of having a “loyal opposition,” that so many parliamentary systems speak of – an opposition that, by challenging us on the issues, makes us better, rather than trying to belittle us. An opposition that, while loyal to the party in power, is not afraid to come forward and negotiate for a better society.

This all may sound idyllic, especially in an age where the concept of bipartisanship appears to be on life support – and how to get from here to there is largely unclear. But here’s some food for thought: the only reason the media will keep focusing on the freakshow approach to politics is because they know we’ll watch. So let’s stop watching the freakshow, and give the media a reason to return to the issues that both they and we would like to see them start talking about.

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