Junk Politics

September 6, 2006

Students read and discuss a critical article about U.S. politics in light of the upcoming elections.

To the Teacher: 

The reading summarizes a sharply critical and controversial article about how the political game is played in the U.S. It offers students a chance to consider and discuss how politics works during a Congressional election period and how the media report it.


Student Reading:

What is "junk politics"?

Below are excerpts from a controversial article by writer and social critic Benjamin DeMott (Harper's Magazine, November 2003). Each quote from DeMott is followed by our explanation and examples.

1. "Junk politics personalizes and moralizes issues and interests rather than clarifying them. It'sÖenthusiastic about Americans' optimism and moral character, and heavily dependent on feel-your-pain language and gesture."

DeMott argues that the candidate's chief concern is setting an "upbeat tone" and showing sensitivity to hardship. For instance, a candidate might talk about how she was raised by immigrants, how her father worked odd jobs while her mother cleaned floors--and about how both parents taught her hard work, honesty and the importance of education.

The candidate, says DeMott, is much less likely to focus on "injustice, spelling out practical correctives, arguing for the correctives in public forms, working for their ultimate enactment." The audience does not hear about how, perhaps, the mother who cleaned floors developed leukemia, had no healthcare insurance and ultimately died young from her illness. The candidate is unlikely to discuss a political response to a healthcare crisis in which nearly 47 million Americans have no medical insurance and cannot afford to go to the doctor. The audience hears nothing specific about why this situation has existed for so long and what can be done about it.

This behavior contrasts with that of political leaders like Thomas Jefferson, who clarified and attacked the injustice of British rulers, or William Lloyd Garrison, who steadfastly attacked the injustice of slaveryódespite the unpopularity of his position at the time.

2. Junk politics encourages "the belief that the words 'political' and 'politician' are synonymous with 'inconsequential,' 'mean,' or 'ludicrous.'"

Newspaper columnists might downgrade "career" politicians or remind readers that someone is "just a politician." Politicians themselves often pretend to be outsiders who have had nothing to do with the political work in the nation's capitol.

DeMott argues that "the American democratic ideal called for universal, informed participation in the public square: acquaintance with skills of argument, familiarity with standards of coherence, brains." The media's negative portrayal of politics, he says, "trashes that ideal and draws down added contempt on political vocation."

Politicians often portray themselves not as active participants in the democratic process, but rather as a family man or woman surrounded by smiling spouse and children. We see the candidate chopping wood and playing touch football with kids. We see the candidate shaking hands with commuters or workers entering a factoryóa factory the candidate will not see again or mention a word about until the next election. We are not likely to hear a candidate discussing coherently and in detail a great public issue such as, for instance, the reason behind the expanding presence of American military bases around the world.

3. "Junk politics introduces new qualifications for high political office, and in the process redefines traditional values." It turns courage toward bragging, "humility toward self-disrespect, identification with ordinary citizens toward distrust of brains."

Our current system, DeMott says, encourages politicians to engage in empty swagger and make broad but uninformative attacks on their opposition. For instance, a president says of terrorists, "Bring 'em on." A candidate scorns "the media elite," but offers no reasons.

DeMott maintains that if the country's founding fathers, during their constitutional debates, had adopted the pose of "crusaders struggling against the odds to conquer pure evil," if they had not "strongly committed themselves to the belief that true politics consists in the giving and weighing of reasons," then "the United States of America would not exist." Nor, perhaps, would such calm and well-reasoned political contributions as Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, or Roosevelt's fireside chats.

4. "Junk politics miniaturizes large, complex problems at home while maximizing threats from abroad." The aim is to "persuade voters that no major [domestic] issues exist" and to establish the "range, command, and mastery" of the politician when it comes to foreign affairs.

An example of this is the bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, which criminalized undocumented immigrants as well as nurses, priests, or anyone else who helps them. The bill calls for more guards and lengthy fences on the U.S.-Mexico border. Up to 12 million such immigrants are in the country, but the House bill says nothing about how they are to be arrested, jailed, and deportedóor about the employers who depend on their hard work and low wages.

A military effort abroad rouses the patriotic feelings of many Americans and at the same time diverts their attention from serious problems at home. For example: Then Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking at the United Nations, presented frightening "factual evidence" of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. He identified a photograph of a tractor trailer as a mobile biological weapon lab. Speaking on network TV, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice warned of "a mushroom cloud" that Saddam may loose on the world. Only later did we learn that Hussein had no mobile biological weapons labs and no nuclear program.

5. "Junk politics seeks at every turn to obliterate voters' consciousness of socioeconomic and other differences in their midst."

Congress has not raised the $5.15 minimum wage since 1997. A full-time minimum wage earner gets $10,700 a year, which is $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. About two million people currently earn the minimum wage. It is at its lowest level since 1955. The purchasing power of the minimum wage is down 20% since it was last raised 1997. During those nine years Congress has raised its own salary eight times. Their raises alone add up to a total of $32,000.

Meanwhile, the income spread between the wealthy and the poor widens, in good part because the president and Congress have instituted enormous cuts in income taxes and estate taxes for the wealthy. (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, www.cbpp.org)

6. Junk politics treats an election as a contest or a race, and focuses on conflict to heighten interest.

A TV newscast might devote two minutes to a candidate caught using a four-letter word, while allotting only 10 seconds for the candidate's thoughts on the minimum wage. Rather than present a thoughtful examination of complex issues, TV news tends to focus on the candidates' personality and limit the time they can spend explaining their viewówhile allowing ample time for income-generating commercials.

Junk politics campaigning devotes huge sums to commercials for the candidate, who is portrayed as a regular person who is concerned about what concerns you. The commercials trivialize complicated issues with sound-bite solutions.The candidate's opponent is portrayed as not an ordinary person and perhaps even as sinister. The opponent's record and positions on issues are oversimplified and might suggest that he or she is motivated by a desire for personal gain.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Do you think DeMott's ideas about "junk politics" are fair? Why or why not? Can you offer specific examples to support your opinion?

3. What differences are there between clarifying an issue and personalizing or moralizing it?

4. Calling someone a politician is often intended as an insult. Yet the country depends upon people in politicsópoliticiansóto govern. And we honor such politicians as Washington, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. Given this, why do you think the word "politician" has taken on such a negative connotation?

5. Do Americans distrust brains in politicians? Why or why not? What evidence do you have?

6. Do you agree that politicians tend

a. to downsize problems at home and magnify those abroad?
b. to ignore differences among Americans, especially socio-economic differences?
c. to sponsor TV commercials during campaigns of the sort described?

In each case, why or why not? Evidence?

7. Do you agree with the description of TV political reporting? Why or why not?

For further inquiry

Any one of the points made in the reading might be a subject for independent or small-group inquiry. Examples:

1. A study of TV commercials for candidates that examines both text and imagery

2. An analysis of the text of a candidate's speech. Does it clarify or personalize? Does it do something else? Does it minimize problems at home? Maximize those abroad? Does it address socio-economic problems and the differences among Americans? How?

3. An examination of TV political reporting. Does it subordinate conflict to issues? To what degree does it offer substance, complexity, ambiguity? To what degree does it substitute for them personality and sound bites on substantive issues? For such a study, students might watch a TV newscast over several nights to note and, later, to analyze their political content. You might assign individual or small groups of students to follow network nightly news programs, PBS and the cable channels.

Because of their growing prominence, internet blogs and websites might be given similar attention. For example, students might examine a conservative site like The Weekly Standard (www.weeklystandard.com) or the liberal The Huffington Post


This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.