The increasing power of stirring imagery and moral virtuosity

Only days into 2019 and we have already been sharply reminded of just how much the optics and messages of politics have changed in the last 10 years.

These developments, of course, don’t represent a total change from the past. Image and narrative have long been central to politics. Pictures have built or destroyed the careers of many a politician.

A number of famous examples spring to mind. Richard Nixon taking a so-called casual stroll on the beach uncomfortably wearing a business suit and oxfords. Bob Stanfield helplessly fumbling a thrown football. Michael Dukakis seated in an armoured tank. And Gilles Duceppe wearing a hairnet.

Each was, obviously, an embarrassing and unfortunate photo. But more than that, each created a feeling more powerful than words alone could explain. Although Nixon’s often uncomfortable personality, Stanfield’s fustiness, Dukakis’s aristocratic air and Duceppe’s inability to be authentic had been commented on before, the photos concretely demonstrated and framed those foibles in a way that mere words never could.

But what has changed is the ease and intensity of distribution, the glare of attention, and the resulting focus on narrative over substance.

Our increasingly divided political tribes combined with our drastically shortened attention span gave rise to a class of politicians that focus on stirring imagery, short statements and moral virtuosity. This does, of course, make for exciting politics. It is also the only way that politicians can hope to compete with traditional and social media landscapes as frenetic as the ones that exist now.

Simply put, a long-form white paper regarding pension reform doesn’t stand a chance of competing for clicks against a video of a dramatic kitten rescue on Facebook.

Perhaps the best example of this is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s interview on 60 Minutes this week. Ocasio-Cortez is an impressive, articulate and engaging new member of Congress. Just 29 years old, she has been an inspirational figure for the left wing of the Democratic Party. She unseated a long-time, long-in-the-tooth incumbent, who stood for much of what the establishment has long been selling.

Young, telegenic, and entirely unafraid of bold statements that challenge the norm, she has struck a chord with many.

Ocasio-Cortez has mastered the art of the narrative and image. Staging sit-ins of Nancy Pelosi’s office in favour of green climate initiatives, posing for photos with other rabble-rousing new members of Congress and making videos dancing outside of her new office are all attention-grabbing methods that have generated never mind barrels of ink about her but zillions of clicks.

The freshman congresswoman, who would normally struggle for years before gaining even an ounce of power or media attention, has a social media-driven profile that is grossly disproportionate to her actual level of influence in Congress.

But Ocasio-Cortez inexperience has also shone through. When she was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, an opportunity that any freshman member of Congress would kill for, she was pressed on her numerous errors.

Her response should be considered alarming for all. “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” It was revealing.

That sentiment is something President Trump would agree with. Instead of carefully considering facts and ideas, the President has embraced virtue signalling and the construction of narratives.

Quickly and easily reinforcing the impulses of his base (and of hers) has proven monumentally important. Their certitude gets people clicking over the kitten rescue videos. As a result, they get attention and create influence.

But just as easily, those clicks can undermine a serious message. Following the president’s Oval Office address this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference that condemned Trump and dismantled his arguments in great detail.

Their words generated little attention. Instead, the image of the two staring sternly into the camera became a comedic meme that flourished across social media, late-time TV, and eventually on to the news networks.

Perhaps before they spoke they should have remembered that this is the era of 280 characters, not 280 pages.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, January 13, 2019)