The Decline of Image Politics?

By Doug Mann, May 2016

On September 26, 1960 American politics changed forever. Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee for President, debated the slightly younger and substantially more charismatic Democrat John F. Kennedy on live TV. Nixon, who inexplicably eschewed makeup, appearing pale, sweaty and dodgy alongside the tanned, hale and hearty Kennedy. Pundits claimed that Nixon won the radio debate, but lost the real one – the one about image. A paradigm silently shifted.

Seven years later French Situationist theorist Guy Debord published a taught little book called The Society of the Spectacle that recognized this shift. Modern society, said Debord, wasn’t about philosophical ideas or political debates, but about images, about the spectacles provided by the cinema, television, and advertising. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord stated, “but a social relation between people mediated by images,” a relation dominated by appearances and pseudo-events. It is the guardian of a society that wants to sleep, to leave the real behind.

Debord’s claim seemed to become doubly true with the rise of social media and the Web 2.0 in the new millennium. Now millions spent much over their day hunched like zombies over the screens of their computers and smart phones staring at videos and pictures, communicating in Newspeak-like abbreviated texts. And the politics of the image marched arm-in-arm with digital culture, with even the most conservative politicians tweeting their daily manoeuvrings to the often indifferent masses (unless a Weiner-style scandal strikes).

Fast forward 56 years to the current US election. In some ways, the image politics paradigm still seems dominant. Most major candidates perform their personae to TV cameras and Internet feeds, their hair perfect, their policies hidden under empty rhetoric massaged by spin doctors. But then there’s Bernie on the left, and the Donald on the right. Trump fits the image politics model only superficially, while Saunders doesn’t fit it at all.

The battle in the Democratic camp isn’t so much an ideological one as a surprising struggle between postmodern and early modern ways of doing politics. In one corner stands Hillary, heir to the Clinton family dynasty, backed by Wall Street, practitioner of the football-coach “we’re gonna win!” style speechmaking. Despite her call to identity politics as potentially the “first female President,” many American women are looking below the veil, finding a policy chameleon. And voting for Bernie.

Saunders, a senior citizen with a shock of mad scientist hair, is hardly the ideal candidate for screen culture. He actually talks about policy and ideology. He points an accusing finger at Wall Street and at the establishment politicians in Washington who are paid $200,000 for speaking engagements while refusing to raise the minimum wage of their constituents, not to mention the corrupt systems of lobbyists that maintains them in power. He even commits the cardinal sin of admitting to being a social democrat, which is only one step away from socialism proper, the ninth circle of Hell for American conservatives.

Second Wave feminists might argue that Saunders is yet another old white man trying to reclaim the power of patriarchy over American politics, his ideology making him only slightly more palatable than Trump. Yet watching street interviews on the major networks indicates that a lot of women – especially young women – are fed up with politics as usual, and back Bernie’s explicitly leftist policies over Hillary’s indebtedness to big business.

On the GOP side things aren’t so clear. Among the fallen is the vapid Marco Rubio, young and handsome, but who Chris Christie exposed in a February debate as having been programmed by his handlers into becoming a bundle of sound bytes approved by party elites. Ted Cruz is older and increasingly irascible, but still able to present a nice image on TV screens, yet he struggles to reconcile his religion and family values with the realities of mass politics.

And then there’s Donald. On the surface, he seems to fit the Debordian archetype, his speeches punctuated by outrageous demands like the one for a Great Wall along the Rio Grande that are sure to get YouTubed and repeated endlessly on the nightly news. Isn’t he living evidence of the power of the society of the spectacle?

In a word, no. Even Saudners-style social democrats have to admit that Trump is putting forth policies, as crazy or horrific as they may sound: the Mexican wall, “rebuilding” the military, an end to Muslim immigration, and the use of torture on terrorist suspects. Admittedly, his sound bytes are quite entertaining, more so the scripted quips of a Rubio or Clinton. Yet a lot of what he says comes across as raw and unscripted, anathema to spin doctors used to the rules of post-Kennedy image politics.

His rally speeches are notoriously long and rambling, and not covered a by mass media which has to shoehorn short media clips in between commercials. Conservative Americans have responded. On April 26, 8 days after his potentially disastrous “7-11” gaffe, Trump steamrolled his way through five more primary states with victories. Saunders won’t win, though he’s still clawing away delegates from Clinton.

Most of us north of the border have long viewed American politics as one huge spectacle, one paid for by corporations who expect to get fair return on their investments from politicians they help send to Congress and the White House. What’s different this time around is that two major candidates have rejected the tightly controlled, money-driven image politics that ruled the roost for a half century. It’s a clash of paradigms, a return to dialectic. Richard Nixon would smile his grinch smile at this decline of the image.

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