Asure sign of the Politics of Zap is the oft-heard suggestion that Audrey McLaughlin and Jean Chrétien should step aside and allow their parties to be led by fresher faces. As a people, we have developed a remarkably short attention span and it may be our undoing.
The zapper changes our perception of reality. In a memorable scene from the movie Being There, Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner points a television remote control device at some men who are trying to rob him. He desperately pushes the buttons, but they won’t disappear. That was 14 years ago, before a remote control device was in every home, before it was called a zapper. Now, everybody has a zapper.
We use them about the same way, too, pointing them at unpleasant or boring scenes and trying to change them. With the zapper, technology has made it possible for us to avoid boredom and unpleasantness and any idea that makes us think more than we want—on television at least. Television producers worry about that—the fact that some of us are unable to watch a television show for more than a couple of minutes without zapping, and that even those of us who can do that are unable to sit through the commercials. Since more and more of life is being played out on television, the short attention span is becoming a problem for more than just television producers.
The zapper mentality is a problem for journalists. It is also a problem for politicians and a problem for the political system. The famous 30-second TV news clip, the one that once epitomized the superficiality of TV news, has now shrunk to an eight-second clip. The viewer/voter, it is feared by both politician and broadcaster, won’t sit still for an entire sentence; a phrase is about it. That logic is what causes politicians to think in slogans; it is what makes the advertising man a key campaign figure. The Politics of Zap is politics as entertain-
Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen
We are so busy zapping the political dial, looking for something new, that we can’t stop to notice the work our leaders are doing
ment. It is the politics of party leaders appearing on talk shows, the politics of Bill Clinton playing the tenor sax on The Arsenio Hall Show. With our zappers, we are willing to listen to our politicians only as long as they are entertaining. As devotees of politics as entertainment, we have little patience with discussions of policy. If the American example holds here, we will pay attention as long as the conversation stays on sexual indiscretions and other scandals—the stuff of the Movie of the Week.
Politics-as-entertainment is also the politics of the new. Zappers in hand, we demand novelty of our political leaders, just as we demand something new every day on television. Is it any wonder, then, that we are impatient with our leaders? In zap time, it seems as if they have been around forever, and we are bored.
Brian Mulroney, of course, has been around for a while—more than nine years as party leader. But Chrétien and McLaughlin? You may not remember exactly when they first became leaders but here’s a clue: neither of them led their parties in the last federal election, which was held in 1988. (Remember Ed Broadbent? Remember John Turner?) It is a classic case of the Politics of
Zap: our opposition leaders haven’t fought an election yet and we’re tired of them.
They are, in the zap vernacular, old. Yet we haven’t really heard what they have to say. Partly, it is their fault that we haven’t heard. The decline and collapse of the Mulroney government offered great opportunities for one or the other opposition leader to make a mark and neither has. But many of the problems of Chrétien and McLaughlin have to do with attention span. We are so busy zapping around the political dial, looking for something new (Look! Kim Campbell! Oh no: Preston Manning—we’re already tired of him!), that we can’t stop to notice the work Chrétien and McLaughlin are actually doing. McLaughlin, we are told, is travelling the country, speaking to small groups, but damned if anyone can find out what she’s saying. (Brian Mulroney did exactly the same thing in the time between winning the party leadership and winning his first election. Because he wasn’t on the news every night, producing eight-second clips, nobody knew where he was.)
Before the zapper, media and public were more patient. John Diefenbaker was allowed to fight five elections in the 1950s and 1960s, of which he lost two and won a majority in only one. Lester Pearson was allowed to fight another election after losing his first two. He stayed and became, it can be argued, one of Canada’s most effective prime ministers, although he never won a majority. Nowadays, it is different Joe Clark was gone after his first loss. So was John Turner. If the more enthusiastic zappers among us had their way, Chrétien and McLaughlin wouldn’t be allowed even one chance at it. In the Politics of Zap, a leader is allowed about two bad opinion polls and then the cry goes up for a replacement.
There had better be a cure for this, otherwise we are doomed to live out our nation’s existence governed by people with eight-second ideas. The cure could be as simple as the people making the effort to pay attention. And it could be as simple as the media and the politicians expecting the people to be paying attention. That would mean politicians thinking in paragraphs and the media allowing at least some of those paragraphs to be heard in full. If politicians expect the voters to be smart, then they have to be smart themselves.
Recent history gives little reason to hope for that. In the past decade, we have seen politics discredited in the major democracies of the West. Some of the responsibility for that rests with the conservative politicians of the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era, leaders who successfully communicated their distrust of government to the people they governed. Voters who were convinced that politicians couldn’t make a difference could be excused for following politics only for its entertainment value, zapping frequently.
Oddly, at the same time as voters profess so little admiration for politicians, they also demand from them what amounts to instant gratification. In a month, someone will ask: What’s Kim Campbell done for us lately? In such circumstances, politicians can’t win. The problem is, neither can the country.
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