A Snapshot from the Age of Distraction | Harper's Magazine

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A Snapshot from the Age of Distraction

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At pollsandvotes.com, Charles Franklin takes a look at polling from the Republican presidential primary race and notes a remarkable phenomenon. On one hand, Mitt Romney is ensconced as the candidate of party elites, effectively the candidate to beat. On the other hand, there has been a very unusual race for the chance to be Romney’s “populist” challenger. Franklin identifies a series of candidates who have risen dramatically and fallen precipitously, usually after only a few weeks of nationwide television exposure, among them Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Herman Cain seems poised to be the next. Some pundits were speculating that Chris Christie would ride the same roller coaster, but then he confirmed his decision not to contend, while Sarah Palin’s coy treatment of the race reflects her dramatic rise and precipitous fall in the polls. Franklin has a graph that presents this information in striking fashion.

It’s not unusual for a political candidate or two to rise dramatically and then melt beneath the lights of the public stage—this happens in almost every election cycle. But it is unusual for so many candidates to rise and collapse in such rapid succession, while still at an early point in the elections. It may tell us something about the quality of the candidate pool. Or it may be revealing of the fickleness and immaturity of the voter group the populists are competing to capture. Or both.

In any event, however, it is characteristic of our current political process. We have created an environment in which scrutiny of political candidates is superficial, and in which candidates can get away with knowing only enough about critical issues to fill a three-by-five-inch filing card. Illiteracy about key economic issues is widespread, and vacuous, simplistic formulations are put forth without being challenged or parsed. Bogus claims about history are made without shame or correction. That would be a fair summary of the televised debates, which offer little actual debating and are often packaged to resemble a television game show. Is America going about picking presidential candidates the way viewers choose their favorite contestants on “American Idol”? America today faces the very real prospect of a double-dip recession, and is deeply enmeshed in two land wars in the Middle East (one of which marks its first decade this week) that are unpopular but that our political elites don’t want to discuss. It faces the prospect of a “lost generation” of un- and underemployed youth. But our political culture continues to avoid vital issues. Instead, we are treated to political tragicomedy. The rapid rise and fall of candidates in the Republican contest is a telling sign of our Age of Distraction.

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