How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boob Tube

Everything You Think You Know About Politics … And Why You’re Wrong , by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Basic Books, 287 pages, $15.

What a remarkable year 2000 might have been for American politics. Imagine: Two mavericks–one from the left, known for his probity and understated grace, the other from the right, known for his unapologetic loathing of media fineries and the Beltway–take the country by storm. Earning their respective party nominations, they fight it out, clean and hard, for the presidency. In a political first, observers across the ideological spectrum agree that regardless of the final outcome, America will be the clear winner.

John McCain and Bill Bradley were there for the asking. But in 2000, two walking embodiments of establishment capitulation will be running in their stead. What happened? Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has a theory, and it is quite surprising: It’s not that the medium of the modern political campaign–television advertising–failed to do justice to men of substance, but that men of substance failed to adapt to television advertising, which she believes to be a perfectly reasonable path to the highest public office.

Ms. Jamieson is widely regarded as one of the finest critics of media and politics in the United States, and has produced a book that will doubtless serve as the vade mecum for the upcoming campaign season. Everything You Think You Know About Politics … And Why You’re Wrong is a wonky, Michael Dukakis sort of a book, but with a strange contrarian spirit that, at first, is hard to track: Instead of flogging the familiar scapegoats, Ms. Jamieson chides us for our casual political cynicism, for the “widely held belief that politics in the United States is broken.”

To that end, Ms. Jamieson runs through the familiar litany–”Soundbites are worthless. Politicians don’t keep their promises. Campaigns are increasingly negative. Attack is the dominant form of campaign discourse”–and proceeds to debunk each of these familiar platitudes in its turn, contesting the notion that campaigns are alarmist, vapid and ad hominem. She brings to bear thousands of data points from what seem like hundreds of rigorous academic studies, including the mother of them all, the Annenberg’s own Campaign Mapping Project, into whose vast data craw virtually every candidate exhalation since 1952 seems to have been fed.

Ms. Jamieson dedicates considerable energy to undoing our facile preoccupation with “negativity.” Sifting through the database, she discovers that a lot of what passes for partisan carping is in fact informative, if adversarial. (The label Ms. Jamieson prefers is “contrastive.”) But she allows that the media is overly committed to “strategy coverage,” filling up each news cycle with fresh poll numbers and micro-analysis of the day’s “winners” and “losers,” to the point that sports and war metaphors far outweigh any discussion of policy substance. Here the book is extremely perceptive: Strategy coverage allows the media to engage in unending handicapping (as opposed to straight reportage), thereby reinforcing their “privileged position by focusing on ‘inside information.’” The candidates end up looking like “two tacticians bent on winning the election rather than governing.” The result is an absurd focus on vitriolic “face-off” moments or embarrassing flubs.

But this book is not at all an anti-media harangue. “Substantive soundbites are the stuff of which the best news stories are made,” Ms. Jamieson declares. Consider her analysis of the demise of Messrs. Bradley and McCain.

Al Gore disposed of Mr. Bradley in Iowa with Tyson-like efficiency, the decisive moment being a set-piece of somewhat underhanded political theater: Mr. Gore had a plant in the crowd, an Iowa farmer named Chris Peterson, who was asked to stand while the Vice President waxed on about his devastating losses in the ’93 floods. The emotional groundwork laid, Mr. Gore turned to Mr. Bradley, as Ms. Jamieson recounts it, and asked him, “Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson when he and thousands of others of the farmers here in Iowa needed it after those ’93 floods?” Game over. Augmented by a series of ads suggesting, amidst images of drenched farmland, that Mr. Gore had been there for the farmers while Mr. Bradley crapped out, the number of Iowa Democrats seriously considering voting for Mr. Bradley plunged. It took The New York Times another month or so to point out that the Vice President had seriously misrepresented his rival’s record on flood relief.

Ms. Jamieson is so committed to rising above cynicism that ultimate responsibility for Mr. Bradley’s stumble in Iowa, and Mr. McCain’s in South Carolina, is pinned on the candidates themselves. Had they only understood the efficacy of the counterpunch (in Mr. Bradley’s case) or the difference between “attack” and “contrast” (in Mr. McCain’s), they might not have gone down so easily. And yet, one wants to say, and yet–suspicion of our political process is widespread. We fear it lacks substance, that its candidates are craven followers, its parties a duopoly, both hostage to soft money. Ms. Jamieson agrees in part, but still argues that most of our disenchantment is really only an information gap, that if voters knew the actual proportion of, say, attack ads to “contrastive” ads, voter cynicism might be palliated.

This seems to me the quantitative fallacy hard at work: Can you measure, in mere numbers, the cost of a low blow like the 1988 campaign’s infamous Willie Horton ad? Can you quantify the damage to the country’s manners in general, not to mention its racial psyche? A thousand ads, stuffed with policy substance and smiling bipartisan faces, may run with and against it, but its essential indecency remains undiluted, marking the character of a campaign–and for that matter, a party–for years to come.

The Horton example is extreme, and ever since Pat Buchanan’s disastrous convention speech, the G.O.P. has largely confined itself to what we might call “sub-demagoguery”–scandal-mongering, the niggling barbs (that Mr. Gore “invented the Internet”) that are more personal than partisan, and hot-button manipulation along the lines of Mr. Gore’s use of the Iowa floods. A good example is the Bush père Horton-era classic, which Ms. Jamieson quotes: “My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos.” (Mr. Bush was referring, of course, to the Clinton-Gore ticket.) The media overplay this kind of jab, but only because the folie à deux is now so complete that politicians utter them knowing they’ll make the highlight reel, like a meaningless but spectacular dunk. As long as the media are keyed to the crowd-pleasing flourish, politicians will oblige.

The heart of this book is not easy to find, but what Ms. Jamieson argues for, beneath all the scholarly rigor and rolling fogs of data, is television. I don’t mean to suggest that she’s self-serving or a cynic, a media-watcher peddling the relevance of the media she purports to monitor. On the contrary, she strikes me as someone who wants to believe, against all evidence, that a kind of continuity is possible between a democracy of mass persuasion, in which voters are often treated more like “subjects” than “citizens,” and the democracy of the yeoman farmer or artisan casting his lot down at the folkmoot. She quotes Jefferson: “[M]en, habituated to thinking for themselves, and to follow their reason as a guide, would be more easily and safely governed than with minds nourished in error and vitiated and debased.” With some tweaking and better coverage and a slightly more rigorous conscience, Ms. Jamieson believes, television might yet be the medium of a Jeffersonian, rather than a Pavlovian, democracy.

Her book deserves its inevitable pride of place through the upcoming campaign season. (Flacks can already be overheard defending an ad as “contrast” rather than “attack.”) But I can’t help thinking she might have dared a slightly larger conclusion. She’s right: Politics is not broken, in any easily defined sense. But if political anomie is widely felt, then there is widespread political anomie, regardless of what the database tells us.

American politics has moved away from the local party–which was intimately bound up with community and everyday life–and towards television; and television coverage of campaigns has moved, in turn, from free to paid time, and thus from an editorial to an advertising context. And most television commercials are masterpieces in miniature of tone, color and prevarication, however well policed for out-and-out lies. The collective swoon for John McCain was a lovely, if doomed, backlash against all this. Mr. McCain was out there in 3-D, touchable, often unscripted; a fleeting answer to anomie.

Ms. Jamieson’s book is remarkable in its assiduously researched, often tightly argued way. The sections on local news coverage and the defeat of the McCain tobacco bill are superb. But she might have registered more fully our collective sense of loss as we sink into a politics of nowhere.

Stephen Metcalf, a freelance writer, recently worked as a speechwriter for the Hillary Clinton Senate campaign .