Much has been said about the American presidential elections. Too much, I would argue. In an endless number of accounts opinion-makers have expressed their concerns over the vulgar tone of the presidential debates, the complete failure to discuss policy-issues during these debates and the fact that the candidates have pushed the frontiers of the politically permissible well beyond reality. However justified these concerns may be, if anything, their continuous repetition only helps to exacerbate public indignation.
However, if we realize that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – and the public perception professionals, who shape the strategy of their multimillion dollar campaigns – simply try to win votes, the presidential election gives us, aside from our daily dose of cynicism, new insights in American voters and American society. That is, assuming that both contenders know what they are doing, the most effective way to convince American voters, apparently, involves precisely the practices that have been subject to so much critique. In a sense, the theatrical performance of Trump and Clinton mirrors the state of American and – to a lesser extent – western man. This article faces this ‘mirror’ and, in so doing, uncovers what the U.S. presidential campaign says about us. Please take a deep breath before stepping in front of this mirror, because looking in a mirror, as you may know, can be a rather deceptive experience.
Form over content
Both contenders have made little effort to convince voters on rational grounds. Any serious discussion of policy plans, for instance, has been virtually absent during the presidential debates. Apparently, people are not very susceptible to reason when deciding who to vote for. Instead, Clinton and Trump excel in making grotesque statements aimed at appealing to the entire array of human emotions, as exemplified by Trump’s promise to construct a wall along the Mexican border or his “If I were president, you’d be in jail”-statement. Many people see Clinton as a more sophisticated candidate, but, although the tone of her discourse is less polarizing, she too appeals to basic emotions like fear and hope. A good example of this can be found in Hillary’s spectacular stage performance at a concert of Jay-Z and Beyonce. All in all, both candidates wrap their content in different packages, but neither of them is very clear about the content these packages contain.
In fact, we are witnessing the victory of form over content. Candidates don’t try to sell us their ideology, but take us on a ride in an emotional rollercoaster. Just to sketch how far campaign managers are prepared to go, take notice of the following: A few minutes before the start of the 2nd presidential debate, Clinton’s campaign team prevented four women, three of whom accuse Bill Clinton of sexual abuse, from taking place in Trump’s family box. This frustrated the plan of Trump’s campaign managers, who wanted the accusers to enter the debate hall at the same time as Bill Clinton, or, even better, to have the accusers shake hands with him.
Another thing that stands out is the fact that the presidential candidates use very simple language. Tellingly, Abraham Lincoln’s grammar use was similar to that of a 12th-grader, whilst Trump’s grammar use fits that of a 5th-grader. Based on the information above, we cannot but conclude that modern man is simple-minded, perhaps more so than its predecessors.
What you like(d) is what you’ll get
But how can this be? Aren’t we much smarter than previous generations because of our superior technologies? No. Precisely these technologies play an important role in making our minds more simple. On our smart phones, for instance, we consume massive amounts of information throughout the day. In deciding on which link to click, the quality of the content is often not a leading criterion. We prefer to keep our brain entertained with funny, shocking or erotic content. Maybe we are so used to being entertained that we prefer US presidential candidates who entertain us over the ones who bore us with their complicated – though more truthful – stories.
Furthermore, most things you see on the internet depend on your past online activity: the likes you gave, the videos you watched and the links you shared. Although the precise functioning of the algorithms that create these personalized internet experiences is unknown, it seems clear that personal internet experiences mostly present you with information that is similar to the information you liked in the past. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. But when people only have access to the same kind of information, they hardly encounter information that challenges their view on the world. In other words, personalized internet experiences continuously reassure people of the veracity of their preexisting beliefs. In order to investigate how these so called filter bubbles might look like, the Wall Street Journal created the Red feed/Blue feed application. The Blue feed shows the internet experience of a fictitious liberal Facebook user, whereas the Red feed does so for a conservative Facebook user. The huge differences between both feeds show that personalized internet experiences are capable of creating parallel virtual realities.
Today – election day – millions of Americans will participate in, what they believe to be, the most important presidential election ever. Tragically, the theatrical election campaign has not provided voters with the necessary information for making a sound decision. Before everyone starts to point accusing fingers at ‘those naughty politicians’, we should be aware of the fact that – in the end – we are the ones who determine the success of political strategies. This introspective approach reveals that we prefer oversimplified stories of right and wrong over stories that do justice to the complexity of modern life. Perhaps, we should do something about that.