Political Culture Clash – Gotcha vs. Authenticity

Colin Delany argues that our political culture is in a transition from a “gotcha” culture to one that values “authenticity” and notes that the two are mutually exclusive.

[Democratic political advisor Joe Trippi] pointed to the video of Conrad Burns falling asleep in a Senate hearing as an example — let’s face it, we’ve ALL started to fall asleep in a meeting before, and it’s not really an indicator of how on-the-ball Burns was as a legislator. Eventually, Trippi believes that we’ll laugh off minor gaffes like this, but at the moment, the Internet is encouraging a culture of authenticity at the same time that rival campaigns, the media, blogs, etc., will gang-tackle a candidate (or celebrity) for the slightest public or private mistake.

MoveOn’s Eli Pariser made a related point at the Personal Democracy Forum conference last month when talking about social media: he argued that they won’t reach their full potential until we can move past the “gotcha” mentality. He has reason to know, since MoveOn was burned in 2004 by the legendary “Hitler ad” — it’ll be hard for campaigns to take risks with citizen-generated content if they’re afraid of being held responsible for something created by a a supporter with bad taste. Another example: think of all the times that the most extreme position taken by a random commentor on a lefty blog is held out by some TV blathering head or talk radio host as somehow being representative of ALL liberal thought.

It’s a bipartisan phenomenon. While the public may indeed value “authenticity” — or at least the illusion of it — campaigns and partisans will naturally seize on gaffes and try to manufacture controversy.

Delany and Trippi are right, I think, that most people have a sense of humor and are able to differentiate temporary lapses from genuine character flaws. Still, there are enough people gullible, stupid, or lazy enough to fall prey to propaganda to make spreading it worthwhile. The “gotcha” culture, therefore, isn’t going to go away any time soon.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.