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Media, Message, and the American Presidency

by Michael Lempert & Michael Silverstein

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-253-00752-0
Publisher: Indiana Univ.

Anthropological take on the centrality of “message” to American presidential politics.

Lempert (Anthropology/Univ. of Michigan; Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, 2012) and Silverstein (Anthropology, Linguistics and Psychology/Univ. of Chicago; Talking Politics: The Substance of Style from Abe to “W, 2003, etc.) argue that high-minded moralizing about the victory of style over substance in presidential campaigns misses the point about what really goes into the power struggles of “late democracy”—their term, following the Frankfurt School’s formulation of “late capitalism.” “Our intent is not to…join the chorus that criticizes the electoral campaigns…for embracing theatrics, personalism, style and brand,” they write, “but to detail in this way the life of our political communicators at work and the peculiar conditions under which they must now labor.” While critics of presidential politics may presume this to be a shallow approach, the authors dig deep in their examination of message creation—as it is manifested during debates, ads, speeches, gesture and even “bloopers” (accidental or intentional). In essence, Lempert and Silverstein find message to be a sort of telegraphed biography of a candidate—a “cartoon” or “grotesque,” they call it.  A positive message (“maverick,” “decider”) is constructed by the candidate’s campaign, a negative one (“flip-flopper,” “un-American”) by the opposition. It’s what campaigns hope voters instantly grasp about a candidate’s “character” before casting a ballot, and it is largely pieced together for them by the media during the height of election season. The authors don’t so much condone these “peculiar conditions” as seem resigned to them, as evidenced by a cynical humor in their presentation that shares the stage (not always felicitously) with dry but precise academese.

A quirky, sharp and depressing analysis of the current state of campaigning.