Here’s three quick thought experiments.

There are two plates in front of you. Plate A is full of bacon or chocolate (your choice) – Plate B is full of broccoli and spinach. Which one do you choose to eat?

There are two doors in front of you. Door A leads to a room where you can watch movies and play video games – Door B takes you to a lecture on quantum physics. Which door do you choose to enter?

There are two political programs airing on two different channels. Channel A focuses upon the personalities and possible shortcomings of our political candidates – Channel B focuses upon key issues facing our country in the world with discussions on how specific policies might help solve the problems. Which program do you choose to watch?

Do you notice a pattern? Obviously the “A” choices sound more tempting and enjoyable while the “B” choices sound better for us. Many times we give into temptation even when we know there are better options out there that we “ought to choose”.

Pleasurable options frequently “trump” less enjoyable ones even when we know the other ones are better for us!

When I was younger I learned a fun card game called “oh hell”. All the players were dealt a number of cards and then had to predict how many card sets or tricks they would take as each player played one card at a time. You had to follow suit and the high card would always win. Sounds pretty logical and pretty boring except that there was one other rule – one suit was considered “trumps”. If you did not have a card in the suit initially led, then you could play a trump card and win the round. Someone could lead with an ace and you could potentially beat them with a two of the trump suit. If you are counting on the ace to win you a round, you would probably say “oh hell” or something worse.

The logical normal way of proceeding could immediately be thrown out of whack whenever there was a trump played.

It’s a little bit ironic that our normal and predictable way of proceeding with the selection of our presidential candidates has been thrown out of whack due in large part by someone with the last name of “Trump”.

Here we are as Americans with a choice between the politics of personality or the politics of issues and solutions. One is fun and entertaining while the other is critical but often boring. Unfortunately, the entertaining politics of personality is trumping the option that would be better for us.

The politics of personality has been brewing in our political system for a number of years. The Donald did not create it but he has certainly used it well to his advantage.  In spite of the title of this article, its message is not directly about him, but more about a cultural shift away from ideas of substance and a focus on form.  As Marshall McLuhan so famously predicted, the medium has become the message — it is our medium which shapes the messages we receive. Our visual and entertaining medium of video has slowly changed our perception of politics to mirror the medium and moved us towards this politics of personality.

And what is the politics of personality?

Simply stated, it’s when we place more attention on the candidates’ personalities, their appearance, their style of talking, their responses to other people’s comments and so on than we do on their positions on critical policy issues.  Again, form over substance.

It comes in many disguises. We frequently give a cloak of false respectability to this style of politics by saying we’re simply trying to understand an individual’s “leadership style” or their “way of handling pressure” or their “openness and transparency”. Yes, to be clear, these are important things to understand about someone before we elect them and some investigation of their “character” is truly in order.

But what I am calling the “politics of personality” is where we move beyond a reasonable vetting of a candidate’s personal qualifications and hound them like a nation of paparazzi.  It’s when we spend all of our time pursuing the minutia of every aspect of a person. It’s when we continue to focus on some minor and less consequential matter way beyond the point of reasonableness. It’s as if anyone who was dumb enough to climb upon the world stage of politics has ignited within us a desire to drag them back down to our level anyway we can. And we feed the process by choosing to watch it and discuss it even when there are more important matters facing us.

There are many critical issues facing our country – climate change, war, income inequality, national debt, racial tension, overcrowded prisons, undue influence of money in politics – and many more.  These are complex issues with many nuances that do not lend themselves to quick media sound bites.  The way our media chooses to handle such complexity is to simplifying them to the point of two “either-or” positions that can be described in a few words and pit a couple of media pundits on either end of the issue to argue with one another for five minutes on the topic.

It’s great drama but not educational.  All we perceive is that we are supposed to choose one side or the other.  It fosters “you’re either with us or against us” kind of thinking.  Most issues cannot be understood fully in such a forced choice manner of presentation. Again, the medium has embedded itself in the message.

When did you last choose to watch a reasoned and respectful discussion among individuals which focused on policies and their potential to address these issues?  If you search carefully including looking beyond the mainstream media, you can find such enlightening programs.

Every day, each and every one of us makes choices as to where we choose to give our attention. What choice are you making?

Pay attention – the mainstream corporate media has lately been spending more and more time on the politics of personality and less on educating us on critical issues. Some say that the media is only giving us what we want, that it’s simply the marketplace at work and that as we choose the more entertaining option we drive ratings for such programs higher. Others say that the media, controlled by only a handful of corporations, would prefer to keep us entertained rather than educating us — as an educated populace might question the undue influence of such corporations upon our governance.

There’s probably a bit of truth in both viewpoints.  Yet, either way, we still have a choice. We can make a conscious choice to focus on the issues that matter and the policy positions of our political candidates and in doing so “un-trump” the more entertaining but ultimately less beneficial option.  Even in a game with trump cards, we can stop and change the game. Each of us has the power of change. Isn’t it time we make a better choice?

Mark Gilbert


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