News about the 24th district race reminds me of the real hype around the Superbowl. It isn't so much who wins that matters, but what happens in the commercials. All the talk about the candidates seems centered around the advertisements they, or their parties, place on television.
Most prominent of all has been the story of the aftermath of the ridiculous slur by the National Republican Congressional Committee against Michael Arcuri. In a television advertisement, the Republicans accused Mike Arcuri of asking taxpayers to pay for a phone call he made to a phone sex service. The accusation, taken literally, is mostly true, although the call may have been made by an aide to Arcuri and not Arcuri himself. However, it became clear many weeks ago that the call was a mistake which lasted less than a minute, and then the correct phone call to the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services phone number, which had just one different digit, was made. The charge for the mistaken phone call was just $1.25 - not exactly enough to break a budget.
The story about this TV ad from the Republicans has made the national news, with coverage on national radio, television, and even in newspapers clear across the continent. Why? People read and watch stories about sex.
No story about the policy positions that relate the important decisions Michael Arcuri and Ray Meier would make representing us in Congress has received anything like this kind of coverage. Why? Most people don't read and watch stories about the public policy measures and oversight that constitute the real work of Congress.
People these days tend to regard congressional campaigns in the same way that they regard celebrity news shows like Entertainment Tonight. They look for news that indicates the personalities of the candidates instead of looking for information about the accomplishments and policy agendas of the candidates. Campaigns are treated as personal dramas rather than political discussions.
This dynamic is similar to what motivates most of our decisions. Whether we're buying a car or a computer, we're driven less by what we need than by the fantasy storylines we create in our heads about how these things will fit into our lives.
Television advertisements for congressional candidates like Michael Arcuri and Ray Meier appeal to us because they provide us with quick and easy codes for understanding who the candidates are without having to bother trying to understand the substance of what the candidates stand for. By coming to an emotional understanding of who the candidates are, we indirectly come to understand who we are ourselves.
The emotional storyline of the phone sex line advertisement appeals to people even after they know the facts of the case, because it tells voters something that they are ready to believe. The advertisement tells voters that rampant, promiscuous sex is threatening their families, and that the plainly sexless Ray Meier will protect them from the threat. The commercial isn't really about the phone sex call at all. It's about people's sexual and social insecurities.
The reason so much of the news coverage is about candidates' advertisements on television is that it's in those ads that the greatest emotional power is displayed. The combination of visual, audio and linguistic cues combine to great effect.
That people should be swayed by such messages is part of human nature. However, there's another part of human nature that these TV ads show little regard for: Our intelligent, rational minds.
It requires strength of will, but we can make decisions based upon what's right for our district and our nation, rather than what feels right. We can attend to candidates' qualifications and ideas about the business of Congress, rather than to the images and suggestions that entertain, flatter, and titillate us.