I agree 100% with Lawrence Lessig when he writes that we should discuss the policies the candidates are proposing and the likely effect of those policies on the future of our nation rather than chase the scandale du jour. However, this kind of policy discussion requires a much more sophisticated understanding than most of us currently have of the “cause and effect” claims contained within fields such as economics, foreign relations, and social psychology. For example, if we adjust this interest rate over here, what effect will that have on rates of home ownership over there? Do we even know how to evaluate the different possible answers to that question?
Furthermore, the press would have a hard time boiling down into a pithy headline an announcement by one of the campaigns regarding, say, a particular position on our relationship with North Korea. Remember the news stories about how confusing the new overtime rules are? The story wasn’t “Here are the new overtime rules”; instead, it was “These new rules are confusing to everyone.” This is how the press handles things that are complicated, apparently.
The campaigns (and their supporters) know this, and so in order to capture the attention of the press, they put other, simpler issues out front. We end up with a public discourse that focuses on “Did he or didn’t he?” questions that appear to have easy answers.
But it also strikes me that these “ridiculous questions” (How many times has the president been arrested? Did Kerry shoot himself to earn his Purple Heart?) all fall within the boundaries of epideictic rhetoric. They are meant to put into the voter’s mind powerfully affective concrete examples from a candidate’s life that will establish and reinforce either a positive or negative view of that candidate. Epideictic rhetoric like this does not, perhaps, serve our needs as voters very well, but it does serve the candidates’ needs in that it’s very effective at pushing people to vote one way or the other.
[Cross-posted at American Dialogues]