November 4, 2012

Exercising our franchise

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — The other day I was chatting via email with a friend of this region who has since moved away. Rick Leibowitz pondered why politicians no longer cultivate the median voter. There was a time when both political parties more clearly vied to represent the vast middle. Now, it seems like there is no good alternatives for the centrist vote. I began to wonder why.

My conclusion is that there are fewer who speak to and for the middle. I think technology is the reason.

As the world became more complex, our representatives educated themselves so they could make the decisions and compromises to help our nation navigate through the pitfalls of economic, social and global policy.

Then, the media served the very important role of the interface between our leadership and the public. Society was divided into four estates. The first estate and the second estate compromised the clergy and royalty that governed civilization. The public comprised the third estate. It was this fourth estate, the media, that offered a bridge and voice between the others. It took this responsibility seriously.

Indeed, our media were once energized by the passion of a few editors motivated by their commitment to the public and by the support of the center of mass of readers willing to subscribe to their newspapers and brochures. These original purveyors of the news had to be sure to best represent what the broadest public needed to know. Newsprint and distribution were expensive, and hence broad appeal was essential for their business model to work.

The broadcast industry tinkered with this model, but did not fundamentally change it. Still, distribution through local stations and antennas was relatively expensive. Because it is difficult to exclude any customer from drawing a signal from the airwaves, this new broadcast industry had to generate income from advertising rather than from subscriptions. And, because advertisers needed to sell their products to the greatest mass of customers, the emphasis on broad appeal was maintained.

This model continued until the cable television revolution. With cable television, the cost to allow one more viewer plummeted dramatically. With this lower cost structure per viewer, a cable station no longer had to appeal to majority of viewers. Instead, it could peel off a small slice of a large population.

Soon, every major special interest could have an outlet willing to cater to it, and every member of the public could subscribe, essentially for free, to a station that catered almost exclusively to what they want to hear, rather than what they ought to hear. Rather than the creation of an improved flow of information, we ended up with a much more partisan and dumbed-down media where none of us is challenged in our way of thinking, and each of us feels a bigger part of an ever-narrower club.

If we watch the debates or follow the election campaigns following the primaries, we see each candidate all of a sudden try to navigate toward our center of mass. Meanwhile, their more intimate stump speeches instead try to excite and cultivate their converted. Yet, our leaders suddenly seem uncomfortable with this centric model. Now, little of modern politics seems designed to appeal to the vast center.

Many of us in the vast center have great difficulty associating with either candidate in this increasingly divided two-party system. We all want to exercise our franchise, but each of us feels we can do so only if we hold our nose and are forced to vote for one candidate or another, neither of whom seem to represent the dire needs of today’s typical household or tomorrow’s children. We vote, or ought to, but we do so with little passion or excitement. It does not help that each candidate tells us less about who they are, and instead seems to focus on who they are not.

This will be the first time I will have an opportunity to vote for a presidential candidate. It is an experience I wish I relished more. Like many of you, I wish I could vote for my ideal candidate rather than against candidates compromised by partisanship. Fortunately, I do not at all feel bound to vote for the slate of a single party and can vote instead for the person who best appeals to my hopes for a region and a nation. Unfortunately, my choices are limited.

The problem is that the more complacent the vast centrist majority becomes, the more politicians pander to the extremes, which causes the middle to be even less excited and more complacent. We may not recover from our downward spiral until we hit our political bottom.

Colin Read contributes to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press including “The Rise and Fall of an Economic Empire.” He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh.