Gone to the dogs
Voters are disengaged, and the media are restive and unhappy about it. But
don't blame the moronic undecideds -- blame it on a post-political system
that rewards money, moderation, and mush.
by Dan Kennedy
As anyone who's heard the phrase "attack-dog politics" or "dogging one's
opponent" knows, canine metaphors are hardy perennials along the campaign
trail. The October 16 issue of Newsweek, however, introduced something
entirely new. You could call it "dogged analysis," but that would hardly begin
to do justice to the depth of the contempt it displayed toward those
insufferable undecided voters, toward the issues around which George W. Bush
and Al Gore have built their dispiriting presidential campaigns, even toward
the political process itself. "Going to the dogs" is more like it.
A four-page fold-out chart titled "Family Fundamentals" depicts what is
supposed to be a typical American family: a white, prosperous-looking
middle-aged couple, their teenage daughter, their preadolescent son, and
Grandma. All five ask questions about where the candidates stand on various
issues -- worded, in most cases, to make them appear as selfish and
self-obsessed as possible. ("We really could use some help with these taxes.
Who will get us more money?" "Can either of these guys keep the price at the
pump down?" "Both of them help us pay my tuition bills, but I'll still have to
wait tables.") Next to their concerns are thumbnail descriptions of where the
In the fold-out chart, the only intellectual substance is reserved for the
family's golden retriever, who complains, "Middle-class humans are so
self-centered," and demands answers about the failed drug war, the threat of
nuclear catastrophe, relations with an ever-more-powerful China, and the gap
between rich and poor. "The next president will have to handle a complex series
of unpredictable and rapidly changing technological, economic, and
environmental problems in the context of disorienting globalization. Bow-wow!"
proclaims what is indisputably the most sentient being in the room. Alas, Fido
-- unlike his dimwitted masters -- does not receive a response to his
There are just two and a half weeks to go before Election Day, and the
presidential race is the closest since 1960, when John F. Kennedy barely edged
out Richard Nixon. Yet the public is tuning out. The broadcast networks scaled
back their coverage of the staged, scripted conventions, and viewership of the
parts that were broadcast was down considerably. The three presidential
debates drew audiences of 47 million, 37 million, and 37 million -- barely
two-thirds the number who watched in 1992, the last time the presidential race
was hotly contested. The highly touted political Web sites fizzled; Voter.com,
which boasts the presence of Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, announced layoffs
in the middle of the campaign. Increasingly, political-news coverage is
targeted toward the niche audience that watches the Sunday-morning talk shows
and the all-news cable networks: readers of elite national newspapers like the
New York Times and the Washington Post and political magazines
like the pro-Gore New Republic and the pro-Bush Weekly
In the past few weeks, it has become especially fashionable among the media to
bash the undecided focus groups: the pathologically uninformed stars of the
post-debate shows. This past weekend, for instance, they were skewered
unmercifully on Saturday Night Live, which has captured the political
pulse this fall better than it has in years. At one point during a debate
sketch, Bush practically begs a woman who says she's pro-choice, opposed to big
oil companies, and in favor of HMO reform to vote for Gore, yet she continues
to insist she can't make up her mind.
A front-page analysis in the October 17 Wall Street Journal by John
Harwood and Jackie Calmes put it this way: "Many undecided voters may resolve
their doubts less by sifting through the issues than by forming general
impressions of the candidates in the campaign's final days. `These soft voters
do not have a coherent set of beliefs,' says one senior Bush campaign
strategist. `If we hear more about "Gore the Fibber" than "Bush the Bumbler,"
that would do it.' "
The Journal adds, "Right now, it appears that the election will turn on
who among them actually shows up to vote." God help us.
"At some point in an election, an `undecided voter' becomes a euphemism for
stupid and lazy, and that time is now," says Tucker Carlson, a staff writer for
the Weekly Standard and a commentator for CNN. Carlson's solution: don't
encourage them. "We've got to stop pretending that everyone should vote. Maybe
democracy by the interested is good."
Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here