A Site for Scholarly Commentary, Debate and Media Resources for the 2016 Election

National Issues

The TMZ-ization of politics

Most of us can rattle off long strings of celebrity names: Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Lawrence, just for a start. The list of important political figures is much, much shorter. “Kim Kardashian” is a household name but “Ban Ki-Moon” is not.

This is one of the first lessons we learn in introductory public policy classes: The media only provides citizens with the information that they demand, and what we demand is often more narrative than substantive in nature.

Never more has this phenomena been more prominent than in this cycle of elections. According to linguistic anthropologists, a presidential candidate’s image is more important than his actual policy proposals. Michael Lempert, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, calls this the “TMZ-ization of politics” and says “we’ve come to rely on the characterizations of candidates that this system has invented to help us make sense of which candidates we should support.” For example, in 2016, Pew Research found that only 37 percent of the general population thought it was important for the candidate to have experience and a proven record.

This demand for an appealing narrative rather than hard substance can seem discouraging. After all, we would like to believe that our country’s citizens make good, informed decisions when choosing their future leaders. The democratic process relies on its citizens being informed voters. The truth, however, is that we are imperfect human beings and often lack the time or resources to do the unsexy work of fully researching our candidates.

That is not to say that this is as good as it gets. Far from it; it simply isn’t a realistic goal for all voters to be fully informed and rational at all times.

The bright side of things is that voters don’t necessarily need to be informed if they can rely on signals. Signals from candidates, media pundits, their friends, their communities — the list goes on. Human are not perfectly rational, no matter how much we wish that we were, but we are ingenious when it comes to finding new tricks and shortcuts.

The times are always changing but in the end, what’s important is that people do what they have done throughout U.S. history — continue to vote for what they believe in.

Megan Ye, from Northville, Michigan, is a junior studying public policy and economics at Duke.


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