Wednesday night’s first presidential debate poses challenges for both candidates, each hoping to close the deal early with the remaining handful of undecided voters. But methinks the event poses an even greater challenge for the viewing audience, united in an increasingly rare moment of shared reality. I can hear the sounds of heads exploding already. How has the Romney campaign prepared their supporters and prospects for the debate? Well, the President will lie, of course.
On the Sunday shows yesterday, Governor Chris Christie—clearly attempting to make up for his disastrous convention speech in which he rarely mentioned the Republican presidential nominee by name—gave an Oscar-worthy performance of “absolute confidence” in Mitt Romney’s ability to turn the presidential race around at the upcoming debate. When asked how he would respond to the President’s criticism of Romney’s economic plan, Christie said, “Stop lying, Mr. President.”
This Republican meme, that the President is a liar, first caught my attention three weeks ago when Romney was asked what his biggest hurdle would be in the debates. “…The president tends to, how shall I say it, to say things that aren’t true,” he said, activating his likable mode to dignify his blatant disrespect. (Romney can be elegant, you know.)
I call this the “and did I mention he’s a black guy?” leit motif that serves as Romney’s de facto campaign slogan.
Blacks are shifty, you know, prone to deception and trickery. They’re unreliable, untrustworthy, and must be expected to lie.
Alrighty, then, let’s move on.
The more interesting observation is how seeding public consciousness with the meme “The President will lie” before the debate provides right-wing conservative Republican viewers with the tool they need to counteract direct exposure to the President’s words, unmitigated by Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. This phenomenon rarely happens in the information culture in which we all operate today, but it will happen at the debate on Wednesday night:
The majority of viewers will tune in at the same time, and in real time, to watch a debate that will be presented “straight up“—without running commentary. (Of course, there will be live-blogging available but few low-information undecided potential voters can be expected to participate. They’ll tune in to the mainstream network channel.)
What’s so unusual about this? In the current information culture, we are able to pick and choose, and we generally gravitate toward information that already supports our point of view. This ability creates the illusion that our opinion is the prevailing opinion, and we do not have to consider opposing points of view if we don’t care to.
In ancient times, humans would read newspapers (printed publications, or “hard copy”) that would expose them to many different points of view, and to current events they might ordinarily avoid paying attention to.
Today, we can tailor our input to suit our preference. This unprecedented ability to bolster our existing worldview while shielding us from others fosters a polarized electorate that is constantly stoked to believe ever more fervently in their personal hype. Choose your websites, choose your blogs, choose your cable station, choose your pundit, choose your poison.
The result is perceptions of reality that coexist but rarely overlap. When they do, cognitive dissonance occurs (holding two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time), and it is most uncomfortable. Thus, the prevalence of yelling and talking over others that marks today’s cable news, punditry, and family dinner tables.
And thus the need for the Romney campaign to provide a handy decoder-ring meme before the debate on Wednesday, in which President Obama will be calm and authentic, and some viewers could be puzzled and intrigued by how much they like him, and how unlike the cartoon versions of him presented by the Republicans he seems.
If Romney’s prophylactic strategy works, they’ll quickly remember that “The President lies,” and all will be well. But methinks the Governor might do better if the chair across from him is empty.
NOTE: The fact is that, regardless of your personal persuasion, in order to be a well-informed citizen in this media culture you must work at it. What is “pushed” at you online is already filtered by your past choices. You must deliberately and intentionally seek out a broad range of views and news sources. This takes time and desire, and it is worth it.