When politics and art collide

For as long as there has been democracy, candidates have had a system of tactics and a finesse to encourage and coerce others to vote them into power.

Manipulating the perceptions and opinions of the masses carries with it a need for skill and wit matched by the likes of artists. It is in this sense that many politicians, and their handlers, are artists in their own right.

A campaign is essentially a system of ‘artistically coordinated multiple messages that lead people to make decisions’.

Taking into account all the facets of modern politics, forces like the tides of the media, the waxing and waning of public opinion and the devious craft of spin doctoring makes American politics an art to be reckoned with.

Much of the fine detail in the fabric of American politics has to do with influencing the perceptions of the public. According to Joseph Kennedy Sr. “it’s not who you are, it’s who people think you are.”

If you as a candidate, journalist or campaign manager, can ensure and produce an almost homogeneous interpretation of piece of political news or oratory, people will be asking for more of your work.

For example, Barack Obama has affirmed himself as an eloquent speaker, using what is called a ‘cool medium’, where the audience has to work to process the message.

He chooses his words very carefully; they aren’t aimed to go over your head; instead his words are crafted into an all-encompassing view, as if to give his listeners an idea of the big picture.

The effect is that Obama makes all people of his political persuasion feel and understand his words the same way, or close to it.

This isn’t too far off from the speeches of Bill Clinton, according to popular opinion of many political commentators at the time – when he talks; he makes you feel like the only person in the room.

Any politician with any momentum behind him will never entirely write his own speech.

All politicians have handlers, the true shot callers in any campaign. They are the people with a clipboard full of agendas and pockets full of researched statistics that stand in the shadows off stage and decide what would benefit the candidate.

George W. Bush had Karl Rove and Nixon had Kissinger; these are the people who understand the image of a politician and what serves it best.

It was a handler that suggested McCain choose Sara Palin as his running mate and it was a handler that urged Obama to market himself as the “change” candidate. In this respect, there is an art form to how a politician, through their handler, responds to everything from town hall questions to scandals and crises.

Like any artistic medium, politics has changed over time. The image of a candidate is now more prominent than ever. Obama passed the threshold of credibility after the first debate, largely by looking more “presidential” than McCain.

It was the point where he proved that even though he is not as experienced as McCain, he is experienced enough to lead the country.

Another classic example of this would be the Nixon/Kennedy debates in 1960. JFK was looking sharp and in good health, while Nixon was sweating like a pig, shifting his eyes back and forth and sported a five o’ clock shadow like Paul Bunion.

Nixon politically flat-lined after the debates. It wasn’t until 1968 when he put forth the image of the ‘new’ Nixon—or the overhauled model as some called him—that his political corpse was reanimated.

Obama has taken after the image of a would-have-been candidate from ’68 as well, Robert Kennedy, whose political tagline was “I want the politics of hope, because I think that we can do better in this country.”

Obama used that association as a political brushstroke and mobilized the nation’s youth, a group more accustomed to apathy than activism.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his seminal political work “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72” that “politics is the art of controlling your environment.”

Politicians, like artists, know there are some aspects of your environment that simply cannot be manipulated, much less controlled.

One of these political “laws of nature” is that in times of economic crisis and/or war, history has shown that Presidential candidates usually take the form of an older, traditionalist conservative and a younger liberal; the latter candidate tends to shake things up.

Another element any politician or artist, must be aware of is that the interpretation of the message can be contingent on the medium used to get the message out. One of the best examples of this was the 1992 debate between George Bush senior and Bill Clinton.

For those who listened to the debate on radio, Bush won, he made his points with conviction and precision.

But for those who watched the debate—on MTV no less—Clinton won by a landslide.

Every time the camera panned to Bush, he was checking his watch, like he had something better to do than debate the future of our nation. Part of this had to do with the fact that Bush had little or no idea what MTV was, he was part of a much older generation while Clinton was at least in tune with the needs and grievances of the generation that watched MTV.

While politics may not be the most in-your-face art—in fact, most often it is quite subtle, almost insidious—it has its own style. While art goes through different trends as the years go on, so does the great American political machine.

Lately, political campaigns have dropped the assumption that all voters are idiots (idiot in the ancient Greek meaning ‘a person devoid of any political thought and action).

Imagine that, an art form that adapts to the needs of its audience.