Style and Substance in American Politics

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Friday, November 9, 2012

Style and Substance in American Politics

Chuck Colson was fond of reminding overly enthusiastic people that “the Kingdom of God will not arrive on Air Force One.” He’s a president, not the Messiah.

If I may make a corollary to Colson’s rule, “the apocalypse will not arrive on Air Force One either.”

The reelection of Barack Obama to a second term is, in some ways, remarkable. As George Will noted in the November 8 Washington Post, “Voters littered the political landscape with contradictions between their loudly articulated discontents and their observable behavior. Self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals 2-to-1 in a nation that has reelected the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson and his mentor Franklin Roosevelt.”

How did this happen? I’ll let those more skilled at political analysis crunch through the numbers and events. But in large measure, the outcome had to do with our national focus on style over substance.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with style. Shoes should be shined. Ties should be straight. Hair should be combed. And presidents should be presidential.

By style should be a vehicle for substance, not a substitute. Victor David Hanson has written that in the course of twenty-one years of teaching, he has met students who “sat in the front of the room, posed long eloquent questions, mellifluously interrupted the lectures with clever refinements and qualifications, often self-referenced all that they had read and done — and then pow!: you grade their first test and there is simply nothing there: a D or F. … Yet in class the next day, there he is again, raising his hand, pouring out clever phraseology and eloquent exempla, as if he has not just flunked his test and is getting an F.”

Hanson’s observation applies to far too many of our politicians. As Billy Crystal’s old Saturday Night Live character, Fernando Lamas, liked to say, “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” It’s also better to look good than to be good, do good, think well, or govern well. Style, not substance is what people notice. And making decisions based on style is less trouble that digging down into the policy weeds to figure out what’s going on.

While style has always been part of politics forever — think of Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully” persona or Franklin Roosevelt’s cigarette holder — our politics have become obsessed with style, precisely what communications scholar Neil Postman predicted they would happen in the age of television.

Most people today get their political news not from reading, but from television or — while it was after Postman’s time — the internet. The issues are framed on television, primary and presidential debates are on television, and while few people see the candidates live, everyone sees them on television. Postman wrote in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business that news on the TV is “anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason sequence and rules of contradiction.”

Without these, the only thing left is the flickering image on the screen and the key to a good image is style. “Logic reason, sequence and rules of contradiction,” not to mention facts and figures, are hard and objective. They can be manipulated in dishonest ways, but they cannot be changed. Sooner or late the truth comes out. Style and image are soft and subjective, easily shifting with the winds of public opinion and the desires of the crowd. There is hardly any truth available to come out, only posturing and spin.

Christians are called to be people of substance rather than style, people who look beyond the surface of things. When Samuel came to Jesse’s house to anoint a new king to take the place of Saul, he saw Jesse’s eldest son and thought that surely this mighty man must be the Lord’s anointed. But God spoke to Samuel and said, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance [style], but the Lord looks at the heart [substance]” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Choices for good or ill have consequences that are also hard and objective. The next four years promise to be bad for marriage, the life issues, and religious liberty. They will also be, in all likelihood bad for the economy and for peace and security around the world.

But the apocalypse is as unlikely and in two years, we will have another opportunity to choose and then again two years after that. The concern is that we will continue to decide based on style in a world controlled by substance.

Publication date: November 9, 2012