Content May 2008

Only Connect

The digital age demands that political candidates be authentic and accessible. But please—hold the carrots.

We understand intuitively why this discourse comes off as so wooden, so content-less, even in its relentless gravitas, but why is it so off-putting now? The answer has to do with how digital culture has made us all skeptics, all Swift Boaters. There is not one affectation, one biographical detail, that now can survive the relentless interrogation of bloggers, oppo researchers, amateur videographers, data miners. This digital Panopticon has in turn bred a culture of preemptive self-revelation, a race to bare body and essence: Hey, I did a little blow!

From the archives:

"The Peril of Obama" (April 2008)
The glamour of Obama may be hard to resist, but could it get the country into trouble if he wins the presidency? By Virginia Postrel

Obama’s weaknesses may lie in the realm of substance and experience, but his self-revelatory style has so far served to obfuscate these potential problems. Paradoxically for a generational totem, his speeches are overtly retro, harking back to FDR and Reagan. But in interviews, he speaks in English, as an actual smart person might in normal conversation. Can you imagine Hillary saying anything as introspective, sophisticated about racial identity, and in its own way daring, as what Barack recently told Vanity Fair? “You know,” he said, referring to his high-school basketball career in Hawaii, “I had an overtly black game, behind-the-back passes, and wasn’t particularly concerned about fundamentals, whereas our coach was this Bobby Knight guy, and he was all about fundamentals—you know, bounce passes, and four passes before you shoot, and that sort of thing.” That such a comment, which 15 years ago might have caused real controversy, went without notice is evidence of how Obama’s seeming artlessness has at least temporarily reconfigured the traditional gotcha relationship between candidate and press. There’s nothing to reveal when the candidate ingeniously seems to be revealing everything. His Web site, like McCain’s, is noticeably free of feigned closeness. Meanwhile, McCain’s temper, his erratic qualities, his politically incorrect jokes (even that lame Beach Boys “Bomb Iran” crack), his forthright, often combative speeches, suddenly make him more authentic, more now, more Greatest Generation 2.0. McCain understood this new culture of authenticity intuitively even during the 2000 election, when he branded his campaign the “Straight Talk Express.” In this endlessly mediated age, even authenticity is a form of branding. Indeed, precisely because we live in an era of endlessly manipulable images, authenticity is the most truly prized brand attribute. But McCain, 100 percent authentic or not, has compellingly sold realness, and may do so all the way to the White House.

This is why an Obama-McCain match-up would be the most engrossing in recent memory: not only an opportunity to see two master communicators go at each other but a chance to alter political discourse for good. The old political speech has started sounding so canned that we literally cannot hear it. I could listen to Hillary all day without really understanding a word she says. It’s not just the unearned intimacy; it’s the way everything seems manipulated and focus-tested by teams of professionals to the point where it becomes a kind of elision, a non-speak.

In early March, Obama sent me an e-mail. It presumed no intimacy. It was titled “Will you make a call for me?” And it asked me to call six people, and, if needed, employ a script that I could access on his Web site. The theme of the e-mail was “connection,” and the idea behind it was that voters would be swayed more by hearing from their fellow voters than from the candidate directly. “The most extraordinary things happen at the personal level, when you can make that personal connection to a voter and discover that you share a common vision of what ought to be,” the e-mail read. “Make a call and make that connection today.” In its frank way, the strategy recalled the chain letters we received as kids, but it also got to the heart of what a digital-era campaign could be: honest about its agenda, distributed, connected. A conversation, even.

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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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