Last year’s election signaled a change in American politics equal to that of the 1960s. The channel for this change was the medium — or rather, media — through which politics now flows. This change in media has brought an evolution in America’s method of communication, and transformed politics as well. The nation can extol it or lament it, but cannot escape it.
The Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 forever changed American politics. Not only the first presidential debates in U.S. history, they were also televised.
To grasp the change, we must understand how they intensely personalized America’s politics. Television brought Americans prospective presidents as never before — into millions of living rooms.
A decade earlier, only 9 percent of U.S. homes had televisions. By 1960, 90 percent did. The result was a “cool medium” that delivered close scrutiny but still kept a respectable distance. For politics, it was a quantum leap from radio’s disembodied voice or the remoteness of rallies.
In the first debate, where John F. Kennedy’s youthful vigor were accentuated by Richard Nixon’s recent illness and debilitating travel schedule, almost 70 million Americans watched. While not the knockout some have later ascribed to Kennedy, it allowed him to neutralize his more experienced opponent.
Presidential debates are a rite of passage: Each of the last 11 elections featured them. Last year’s debates contrasted sharply with the first one in black and white, yet the stark difference between the 1960 and 2016 elections goes well beyond just the debates. It is deceptively easy to attribute this to the candidates and overlook the abrupt change in how politics is now communicated.
Eighty-four million Americans watched the first debate of 2016. Although a large numerical jump from 1960, it garnered a much lower percentage of the population — 25.8 percent versus 38.7 percent. It also underscored that Americans are increasingly reliant on personal communication for consuming their politics.
In 1960, 80 percent of American households had telephones, which in that period meant landlines. In 2017, only 45.9 percent have landlines (the percentage has been falling 3.7 percent per year since 2010). In contrast, 95 percent of Americans now own a cellphone of some kind — a far larger percentage than families owning a television or telephone in 1960.
These quantitative and qualitative differences create a far more personal means of mass communication. The change in media has brought a change in the method and message of political communication.
Between the 1960 and 2016 presidential debates, American political communication went from formal and filtered to informal and intensely personal. Far from being dominated by the “cool medium” of 1960 television, American politics is now dominated by the “hot media” of the 21st century.
While President Obama made hugely innovative strides in the use of personal communication — linking supporters, disseminating his message and, of course, raising enormous sums of money — he continued to use the new technology in a comparatively “cool” way.
By 2016, the new media had disseminated dramatically as Americans’ familiarity with it grew. No longer a supplement to television, it threatens to supplant television — and all other communication methods — unless they adopt it. Accordingly, all other methods desperately seek linking up to it — and enduring seismic shifts in their traditional operations.
The result is not simply the ascendancy of a “hot medium,” but a “hot media.” Personal communication has transformed all communication media. Mass communication is now intensely personal. Those plying its crowded channels must stridently grab attention amid the mass of competing personal communication.
Political communication must follow.
America can complain about this general media trend and its particular impact on politics; however, it’s nothing new. It follows a long-term trend toward greater personalization. At one time, presidential voters had no more access to a candidate than written words. Just over a century ago, it gained access to spoken voice. With the 1960 presidential debates, the audience gained an close-up and prolonged look at the candidate’s appearance.
Many ascribe the changes in the 2016 campaign to the candidates waging it. However, the transformation runs deeper. The media have changed and the way candidates connect to their audience has altered with it. And these changes filter through every facet of the campaign — from candidate to mode to message.
Populism appeared to dominate both parties in 2016. Party establishments struggled to address it with varying success. Implicit is the belief these challenges were aberrations and later campaigns will revert to traditional norms. Yet, instead of being populist aberrations, 2016 introduced the political manifestation of mass media’s personalization.
• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.
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