Television and movies have brought about a disturbing change in how and where Americans get the information they use to form opinions as well as the factors they consider when making political decisions. Television and movies have been successful in transforming Americans into intellectual coach potatoes who would rather be entertained than informed and who make decisions on the basis of feelings about such inane concepts as likeability rather than facts. Thinking is hard, it requires effort, and facts are like diamonds, they must be dug up and processed. But feelings are easy. They occur naturally and require no effort. Likeability—such an important factor to politicians in the age of entertainment—is a no-brainer as long as you don’t take the time to look behind the carefully manicured image of the likeable politician.
The scourge of intellectual laziness is why the left-leaning news outlets now feature more soft human interest stories than hard news. It is also why Hollywood movie moguls make absurdly inaccurate but heart-rending movies like The Butler that appeal to emotion rather than intellect. More Americans than not now form their opinions on the big questions of the day—questions such as who to vote for in national elections—by watching biased, inaccurate, mindless fluff on television and in movies. Neither the Hollywood producers nor their counterparts in the television news industry even attempt to provide disclaimers about inaccuracies in the movies and programs they run. Instead, they feel free to treat politically biased, fictional programs and movies as if they were documentaries because they know their audience is too lazy to do the hard work of digging out the facts.
Michael Medved recently created a stir among fellow conservatives by stating that the American public no longer elects presidents on the basis of issues. In effect, he chastised the Republican Party for thinking—naively in his view—that the next presidential election could be won by presenting the public with a political platform superior to that of the Democrats. His point was that the Republicans had a superior platform in the elections they lost to Carter, Clinton, and Obama. They lost, according to Medved, because they had unappealing candidates. In Medved’s view the Republicans will continue to lose unless they find a likeable candidate who appeals to voters on a personal level, a candidate who can outpace the left-leaning image makers on the east and west coast who control television and the movies.
What really rankled Republicans was that Medved attributed Ronald Reagan’s two election victories more to his likeability than to his stand on weighty issues. This might be tough medicine for Republicans to swallow, but on balance I believe Medved’s assertion is more accurate than not. Someone should remind Republicans of the old maxim Only a fool continues to do things the same way over and over while expecting to achieve a different result. Obviously—at least to thinking people—a superior platform in the hands of another Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, or Mitt Romney is just another losing platform.
I don’t go quite as far down this road as Medved. I think a presidential candidate’s stand on the critical issues of the day still matters. After all, the 47 percent of Americans who are addicted to government entitlements do, in fact, want to know which candidate is most committed to continuing their monthly handouts. The functional question in this debate is: In the age of the entertainment, how much does a candidate’s stand on the issues of the day matter? Where Medved is correct is in asserting that Americans are heavily influenced in their voting decisions by the likeability factor. While it still takes more than an appealing smile to win a presidential election, a candidate who fails the likeability test is not going to win in this age of vapid, shallow media imagery. In the on-going battle between image and substance in presidential elections, the table tilted in favor of image during the Kennedy-Nixon’s debates. Those attuned to presidential politics know that the physically attractive and likeable Kennedy won in the minds of the television audience but lost in the minds of radio listeners. This was probably the first presidential election in America in which image was more important than substance. Kennedy won, in part, because the television camera, and in turn the television audience, liked him more than Nixon.
In every presidential election since Kennedy-Nixon image over substance has become more and more the rule. For example, there was no substance to Barack Obama’s platform when he defeated Hillary Clinton for the nomination of the Democrat Party. His platform consisted of nothing more than broad generalities about hope and change. Whose hope and what change were questions Obama and his entourage assiduously avoided answering. Nonetheless he outpaced a candidate everyone had already anointed as the Democrat’s nominee because he was more likable than Hillary. Unlike her morally challenged but charismatic husband, Hillary was not likeable. On camera she came off as an unattractive, overweight, angry woman (an image she will have to overcome in 2016—good news for Republicans if they can manage to find a likable candidate).
The American public has become a shallow herd of sheep influenced more by tabloids, so-called reality shows, mindless sitcoms, and biased movies than by hard news, hard facts, and hard truths. This is why President Obama is more likely to turn up on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, The View, and The Daily Show with Jimmy Fallon than on hard news show like Hannity, O’Reilly, or even the ever-mannerly Huckabee. Not only are tabloid-like programs safer territory for a president afraid of tough questions, he can reach and influence more mindless Americans by appearing on these mindless programs. The most dangerous thing a liberal can do is appear on a television program that appeals to the minority of Americans who still read, think critically, and ask hard questions.
Unembarrassed by its exploitation of shallowness, the Obama administration fully admits to using this strategy. Consider the words of White House press Secretary, Jay Carney: “We’re trying to communicate with Americans where they are. And the viewers of late-night shows are not necessarily the readers of newspapers or wire services, or necessarily viewers of cable or broadcast news shows.” What an admission. What Carney said is that many Americans no longer stay informed by reading or even watching hard news and these are the people Barack Obama and the Democrats appeal to and try to influence. Why? Because there are so many of them and, with the help of the entertainment media, they are so easy to manipulate.
This is what America has become: a nation of intellectual coach potatoes incapable of critical thinking who believe that reality television is real and who are influenced more by absurdly inaccurate movies like “The Butler” than by facts, logic, or reason. Too many Americans no longer think, they feel, they no longer discern, they emote. As long as this is the case, Michael Medved’s warning about likeability is a warning Republicans should take seriously. While Republicans debate the finer points of their presidential platform, liberals continue to grow their ranks using movies that appeal to shallow, vapid, emotion-driven Americans who are more concerned with who wins Dancing with the Stars than who wins in Egypt or Syria.