Faster Politics

Political commentary and more.
Feb. 23 2000 4:02 PM

Faster Politics

My friend Bruce Feiler had a thought that he said I could steal. It's this:

Everybody says competition, plus the Internet, has speeded up the news cycle. You used to watch the evening news once a day, or watch Meet the Press once a week. Now you look at Salon and complain that they've had the same article up for an hour and a half. In this environment, charges and countercharges fly faster. The conventional wisdom forms, and contrarian pundits react against it, and counter-contrarians weigh in, etc., all in a day, instead of over the course of a fortnight. Call this speeding up of the news cycle Trend 1.

People have also noted that the primary schedule is front-loaded and very compressed this year, with more than a dozen important primaries crammed into the month and a half between the Iowa caucuses and the big delegate payday on March 7. Call this campaign compression Trend 2. Generally, it has been a cause for lament--by underdog, low-budget candidates worrying they won't have time to get their messages out, or (lately) by establishment candidates worried they might be victims of an impetuous crush briefly entertained by the electorate but later regretted. Once a candidate gets momentum, the argument goes, he or she can't be stopped until it's too late.

Feiler's point is that we should put these two trends together--and that when we do, Trend 1 considerably softens the impact of Trend 2. We have a speeded up primary calendar, but we have a speeded up news cycle to match it--a news cycle that lets voters get the information they need to make their decisions in time to avoid the superficial rush to judgment that critics of the compressed primary schedule fear.

In particular, the concept underlying the rush-to-judgment fear--the old idea of "momentum"--obviously needs to be reassessed. After New Hampshire, commentators wondered how McCain's momentum could be stopped. (After all, he was on the cover of all the newsweeklies. Remember what that did for Gary Hart!) Well, McCain got a New Hampshire bounce, but it didn't last nearly long enough. He was beaten, rather decisively, two weeks later in South Carolina.

Then Bush had the momentum, which would surely sweep him to victory in Michigan's primary just three days later! Wrong again. Bush's Big Mo (and the impact of McCain's bitter, Nixonian concession) lasted about 24 hours, which was about 36 short of what Bush needed. In part that's because the speeded-up news cycle let McCain counter Bush's momentum (by using Bush's Bob Jones University appearance to rile Catholics) with record speed.

In short, political trends that used to last for weeks now last for hours. It's like watching the 1984 campaign on fast forward, except that the calendar still drags on into early June, meaning there's room for plot twists we could only dream of in 1984. To be commensurate with the speeded-up news cycle, the calendar would probably have to be compressed even more. Maybe we could have had the whole thing wrapped up by St. Patrick's Day!

Of course, voters may not entirely be keeping pace with Trends 1 and 2. Are they really as well-informed and conscientious as before--swooning, having second thoughts, rebelling, coming "back home," and so forth, just as they used to, only more rapidly? Can you keep dividing time into smaller and smaller bits without bumping up against the limitations of the human brain?

I would read James Gleick's book Faster and come up with some conclusions on that question. But I've got to get this up on the Web quickly before somebody beats me.

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