Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Glamour and Barack Obama in David Riesmann's Lonely Crowd

Riesmann (e.g., p. 188) emphasizes the role of the media in creating other-directedness. The inner-directed carry production-related values into politics, the other-directed carry consumption-related values into politics. For the other-directed:

"Politics is to be appraised in terms of consumer preferences. Politicians are people--and the more glamorous the better. Moreover, in imitation of the marketplace, politics becomes a sphere in which the manner and mood of doing things is quite as important as what is done...The mass media of communication are perhaps the most important channels between the other-directed actors on the stage of politics and their audience. The media criticize the actors and the show generally, and both directly and indirectly train the audience in techniques of political consumership."

Riesmann describes what we now call "mainstream media" (I call it pissant propaganda) as "training" its other-directed audience:

"they include the whole range of contemporary popular culture from comic books to television. They dominate the use of leisure in all American classes except at the very top and perhaps also at the very bottom; and their influence is very great in creating the styles of response compatible with other-direction."

Riesmann notes that first,

1. "Popular culture is a tutor in consumption, it teaches the other-directed man to consume politics and to regard politics and political information and attitudes as consumer goods."

and second,

2. "The media have a stake in tolerance...This attitude of the audience leads to an emphasis not on what the media say in terms of content but on the sincerity of the presentation."

Thus, Riesmann argues, politics becomes an artifact of consumption. "The mass media act as a kind of barker for the political show. These have discovered one sovereign remedy, glamour, to combat the danger of indifference and apathy...glamour in politics, whether as charisma--packaging of the leader--or as the hopped-up treatment of events by the mass media, substitutes for the types of self-interest that governed the inner-directed. In general: wherever we see glamour in the object of attention, we must suspect a basic apathy in the spectator...the wider the electorate...the more glamour tends to displace issues or old fashioned considerations of patronage."

Riesmann argues that because of mass media's need for stable demand for their product (p. 191) they have to appeal to an other-directed audience. The reason is that the indignant (inner-directed) audience is too inflexible and likely to resist moral or intellectual shifts. He interprets this as "intolerance". However, it is also likely that sponsors may object to tendentious political positions on which inner-directed audiences might insist. The market-driven characteristic of advertisers lends itself to an other-directed audience. Hence, inner directeds are systematically excluded from the mainstream media's audience.

The mass media puts more emphasis on news and politics than market demand justifies. Part of the reason is that the other-directed "looks to the mass media for guidance in his design for living and hierarchy of values. He is led to assume that other people must rate politics as the mass media themselves do...The media...could be viewed as a conspiracy to disguise the extent of political indifference."

The mass media do not cater to inner directeds outside of the news (p. 201):

"This gnawing deficit of acceptable mass media would perhaps be less troublesome to the moralizer if the world in which he lived still appeared to be inner directed, to be governed by an invisible hand. But his own experience of life is often disappointing; he is deprived of a feeling of competence and place. Neither his character nor his work is rewarded. In that situation he tends to turn on both--for he is vulnerable to lack of worldly comprehension even more perhaps than to lack of worldly success . In a last desperate effort to turn the country back on its inner-directed course in order to make it habitable for him, he is ready to join a political movement whose basic drive is indignation. A world that refuses him a place--a world that bombards him with messages that make him feel inadequate--may not appear to him worth saving, though his destructiveness may be rationalized by various ideologies."

Riesmann adds:

"The moralizers and inside-dopesters taken together are probably a majority among the better-educated, but surely a minority of the whole population. However, the inside-dopester has little to offer to the indifferents in the way of psychic dividends: his very knowledge leads him to be aware of how little can be accomplished in politics and how fantastic it is to hope to 'get rid of politics'."

The coverage of Barack Obama combined moralizing with glamour. The media aimed to appeal to the indifferents, bringing tradition-directed as well as inner-directed indifferents to Obama through moralizing as well as glamour.

The Republicans since 1980 succeeded through moralizing. Riesmann states that this is a likely outcome. The reason is that other-directeds enjoy moralizing because it amounts to sublimation. They cannot express indignation themselves, so they often enjoy it when they see others do it. A candidate who combines glamour with sincerity is the very candidate that Riesmann would argue is likely to succeed. The media gave this gift to Obama, the appearance of sincerity coupled with glamorous appeal. Note that John McCain was sincere but lacked glamour, a point which many announcers such as CNN's Jack Cafferty hammered home.

The media did not conform to Riesmann's hypothesis of "tolerance" in the recent election. They completely jettisoned the conserative indignation in favor of a "progressive" indignation concerning George Bush conservatism. This failure of tolerance would seem to have been self-destructive for the mass media. Their audience of inner directed conservatives is likely to wilt in the next few years.

One reason might be the advent of the Internet. The power of the mass media is on the wane. Riesmann argues that they did not have much influence anyway. Televsion exacerbated the trends that Riesmann identified, which is probably why the book became so popular in the 1950s.

The centralization of media that occurred with radio and television has been in steady reversal, first because of cable television and now because of the Internet. The mass media may be in the process of losing its broad tolerance because of competition from the Internet. Fox, CNN and MSNBC are little more than glorified blogs. Hence, they more openly take sides than in prior decades because they need to stake out a market segment. They are no longer so important as sources of opinion and news. The New York Times's decline is similarly symptomatic of decentralization in media. This decentralization has important implications for public opinion. The nation is likely to become more fragmented because the large population and size need to be reconciled with increasingly fragmented opinion. In a society where the largest television station does not command five percent of the audience and there is little reason for the liberal ideological uniformity that has characterized the mass media in recent years, it would seem that America may have trouble continuing to function as a single nation.

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