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Consuming The 2008 Campaign

Commentary

The marathon of civic marketing and obsessive-compulsive horse-race political news coverage (also known as the 2008 presidential campaign) that began in December 2006 is now in a somewhat quiet state as it approaches the autumn stretch.

It has been a wild ride for political consumers, also known as voters. Much of it has been positive.

The primary season was uniquely fascinating and potentially historic. The drama of the primaries has been the great virtue: Clinton's fall, Obama's rise and McCain's resurrection. The prospect of electing the first female or African-American president added gravitas to a campaign ritual that seemed to have lost any in recent years. The notion of electing a Republican war hero whose personality is anti-authoritarian and maverick has some fun civic mischief about it.

All this nourished more civic engagement than usual, more voting and more participation.

Still, the marathon has been hard to endure for many. Twenty-three months is an absurd amount of time for a campaign. The length of the campaign, its repetitiveness and high malarkey factor, along with the triviality of much of the coverage, are all frustrating.

Our 21st century campaigns have a postmodern aspect, where every voter is both a pundit and an analyst. Cable news networks spend hours upon hours showcasing heads talking about tactics. The gluttony of ads, stage-managed events and focus-group-tested sound bites of the candidates and their surrogates have a natural repugnance for Americans.

Still, it has been a great campaign. Since we're so close to the finish line, consider trying some adjustments of temperament and philosophy to get the most out of the remainder of Campaign '08.

Gratitude. Few intense partisans will like this: In this election, more than any I have covered, the voters have much to be grateful for.

I think independent and moderate votes — that is, about 75 percent of the electorate — understand this already. For hard partisans, it would be prudent and satisfying to suspend the shackles of party, ideology and pet passions for a moment and look at John McCain and Barack Obama as vying for an impossible job. I believe these are two good men who have both spent their adult lives in service to their communities and country. I don't think either is greedy, power-hungry or trivial. I know that is corny, but that is my argument.

I further believe both candidates are trying to campaign using less spin, claptrap and phoniness than in most recent campaigns. They are failing. But they are at least trying a nearly impossible task. We ought to acknowledge that, appreciate and vote for the candidate we respect most.

Personal Accountability. The amount and volume of news coverage and argu-tainment attention to this two-year campaign are painful to stomach. I grant that.

But you alone are responsible for the quality and quantity of political information you consume. "The media" are not. Neither are the candidates, the parties or the ad agencies. You are.

My strong counsel is to go on a media diet until Election Day. Consume less television, radio, cable, and print political news (especially cable!). Focus on hard news reporting. Most important, try to read and hear the candidates' unmediated words. These are two statesmen who use plain English and avoid what linguists call "crafted speech," that is, market-savvy sound-bite talk.

Most important, accountability means being as tough on yourself as you are on the candidates. This means asking if you really are so convinced that people who disagree with you on, say, abortion, gun control or global warming are evil rats. Is it true that people you disagree with "just don't get it" or are "just biased"? Are you really as confident in the righteousness of your positions as you think you are? When you get into a heated political argument, are you able to keep listening?

Diversify. Don't get all your news and views in one flavor.

If you lean right, make it a point to go beyond Fox News and The Wall Street Journal op-ed page. If you lean left, go beyond Huffington Post and The Nation. I hope my bosses aren't reading, but if you are an NPR fan, find some other regular destinations. Do that no matter what your favorite news source is.

In short, take some time to see the campaign through someone else's eyes.

Political empathy, the capacity to tolerate and even embrace the radically different views of others, is perhaps the cardinal civic virtue in a wildly pluralistic, diverse society. Remember what the money says: E Pluribus Unum. Radical tolerance is a skill of citizenship and statecraft that has atrophied in recent years.

All this takes effort. But generally in life, you get what you give. Enjoy the campaign.