Monday, November 7, 2016

Unhinged From Reality – America Flirts With Fantasy Elections


Are elections rigged? Maybe. Are they hacked? Could happen. Are they tampered with during shipment and handling? Poll workers and experts say no. What could they be hiding? What we know for sure is that in the era of the permanent campaign cycle...
  • We're sick with our own disgust.
  • There is a widening gulf between the electorate and the elected.
Representative government was the delivery vehicle for bringing democracy to the masses. But what are our collective roles as participants in that process? In the plot to undermine democracy, our deep and open doubts form one closely-held secret no one seems to be keeping. In this fifth national election in the young century, how do we identity as citizens?

Are we...
  1. Our social media check-ins?
  2. The sum of our political contributions?
  3. The tributaries formed by our gender roles and bloodlines?
To the electoral machinery the American voter is composed of: (a) a basket of friend requests to (b) one part debt load and (c) two parts gene pool. We know this because we hear about the path to victory and that path is lined with ethnicities, regions, income, and education levels. The boundaries that define our public lives are one in the same as our value to advertisers.

Contracting Voters

With that kind of calculation, is there any surprise that many hold regard for the vote as an endorsement of a system that has no other purpose for us? There may be some lingering guilt associated with betraying our servicemen and women's fight to preserve our right to it. There may be a perverse fascination for using the vote as a cudgel. If the ruling class compromises the social contract between the government and its citizens, why not just finish the job?

In 2016 the citizen-outsider is routinely exposed to groveling at fundraiser dinners and the spoils of privilege. On the virtual battlefield, the first amendment can just as easily be invoked over dark money and cyber warfare as it can over freedom of speech, the press, and assembly. As a world awash in WikiLeaks turns transparent, the more unhinged our conventional reality becomes. Think of elected leaders publicly worshipping at the altar of Horatio Alger. Now square that with a recent Derek Thompson piece in the Atlantic on America's Monopoly Problem:

"The land of the big. And the home of the consolidated."

It's not just that the status quo works for those in power. It's that the only power the average voter holds is to punish the system with their votes – however many entangled pieces may vaporize before the new administration takes office.

Vandalism in the Voting Booth

It's a sobering reminder:
  • Everyone's a special interest.
  • Everyone's a single interest voter.
But no one gets to pick how those single issues are strung together, let alone the candidates for speaking to them. A zero sum game is a ray of sunshine compared to the lose-lose proposition of a Clinton Trump victory. Both candidates defy all precedent in their unfavorables.

Never before have so many in one camp taken collective action to block, deny, and ultimately prevent the will of the other. Whoever emerges will earn a mandate – not to lead but to defend and deflect the howls of protest from the vengeful and affronted. When moral compasses run afoul of legal codes the disenfranchised are not only ostracized but banished from the larger community. The only option between conquest and surrender is the escape of withdrawal – to fantasy elections.

Level With My Playing Field

I've fixated lately on America's nose-diving attention to NFL games. At the core of football as social conventions are the rules and distractions of the non-events to be endured: first down measurements, thrown flags, PSAs, timeouts, stretchers, stats, less-than-instant replays of contested calls, and station identifications for starters.

Why do we want to throttle our  collective attentions – pull them off to the side of the road for the passing ambulance corps – when we can lock into the pay-offs of games called by our plays, players, strategies, and even our own rules. From the first tax loophole to the last tacked on amendment, what can be more American than playing by those?

Fantasy elections tackle another largely unaddressed need and that's a level playing field for rating politicians. Key to this shift is that voters and not fact-checkers are the ratings agencies. Not only do fantasy voters have the same fact base to draw from but they decide which facts on which to make that determination:
  1. Is the candidate an established politician? Then up comes crime stats, graduation rates, income levels, unemployment numbers and a host of pocketbook-slanted app counters.
  2. Are they here to entertain us? What are their follower numbers on social media? What kind of box office ratings do they attract and what attentions of ours do they pledge to hold if they win?
  3. Are they a titan of industry? How many jobs did they create, how much value did they return to shareholders, and how much of it was shared among the wider communities impacted by their success?
As great as dislodging the media might be to us craven messenger-shooters, this middle-man elimination scheme pales in comparison to the ultimate removal – YES! The yanking of the Republican and Democratic umbilicals from the womb of the American electorate.

In such a scenario the color wars of red and blue, the racial rancor of black and white, the belief battles between religion and science and that widening gulf between the one percent and the remaining population on earth. That great reckoning is about liking, loathing, and/or reserving judgment on the myriad of stances, roles, policy positions, and alliances that collect around the limited choices we have in a candidate X versus Y world of today.

Scheduled Departures

With fantasy elections voting freedoms are extended to a list of top ten issues. These picks are not subject to the whim of mass shootings, unscripted gaffes, or other orchestrated surprises. As a set of chronic conditions and tough problems, they are resistant to the whirlpool of visceral gratification that pulses through the cable news circuit. They are not a list to be bought or placated by a power-broker. There will be repeated tallies throughout the play-offs – um, I mean primaries – where fantasy voters can begin linking their leanings to the stances they're hearing on the campaign trail: 
  1. Imagine a time when an agnostic voter can bypass abortion entirely?
  2. Fathom a contest where pro-lifers can step over the commotion about where to send troops under which war game scenario?
  3. Dream of a debate where a deficit hawk can tie entitlement spending to the non-partisan fact that fewer workers are supporting more retirees?
  4. Conceive of a world where a living wage bill garners more attention than elderly elites waxing nostalgic about their self-made careers?

Fantasy or Fiction

Fantasy elections permit the voter the satisfaction of not only voicing their concerns but choosing the issues that concern them in the first place. Politicians can't choose us like voting cattle from some big data stockpile. They can't pony up based on delivery us like some kind of tribally-connected takeout order arranged according to a standard issuance of dog whistles:
  • So-and-so's trying to take away your such-and-such
  • This-and-that's trying to make you pay their way and their wares and cares.
My favorite accusation comes from this morning's checkout at the North Hadley Sugar Shack. Shannon Kendrick describes the self-interested participation of the political classes as paying $ thousands a plate at a fundraiser without pennies towards helping to feed a needy family. The point here is that American greatness can only occur when Americans are engaged on the merits of our ideals and not the electoral math of our demographics: Represent us for our resourceful minds – not our feeble, unyielding body parts.

To paraphrase the late Tip O’Neil: All politics is (not only) local. It's frontal lobal. That's an Election Day fantasy that can bring democracy back to the ballot, no matter who wins tomorrow or presents evidence of rigging on the day after. That's my love-of-country naivete running full mast.

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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.