On Sept. 26, 1960, the first televised presidential debate in American history took place, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The result of the debate was stark: those who watched it on television believed that the young, handsome Catholic from New England had done a better job, while those who listened to the debate on radio thought the old codger from California was a better fit for the job.
From that day on, as television surpassed radio as the most novel form of communication in American society, presidential candidates have had to take their appearance into account.
Today, Sept. 25, 2018, a former host of a television show is America’s highest-ranking elected official. You may think that the end result of television itself has been a net negative for American society, as careful statesmen have steadily given way to boastful showmen with little respect for the fact that ours is a republic governed by laws, not men. This pessimism is understandable, and unyielding, but should not be embraced. Freedom requires an optimistic mindset. Here are two reasons to become (or remain) upbeat about the future of American society.
For one thing, television has all but been replaced as a form of communication by the internet, especially for people under the age of 50. Americans have increasingly eschewed television as a form of knowledge, preferring instead to do research on candidates and issues on their own, using what is essentially the world’s largest library (the internet). There are issues that come with this, too, of course, as partisanship has become sharper since people began doing their own research. Yet the influence of large media corporations - ABC, NBC, CBS - has declined precipitously as Americans have become free to shape their own opinions once again. The fact the traditional press - the printed word - once again has a role to play in shaping American culture, through the internet, is also cause to celebrate. Sure, American society has become more polarized over the past two decades, and technology shares some of the blame, but the question has to be asked: so what if Washington can’t seem to get anything done? Gridlock is a feature, not a bug, of our constitutional system.
Another cause for an optimistic spirit is that the decline in quality of presidents over the last half-century might not have anything to do with television (and, by extension, technological advances) at all. Consider the state of the world in 1960. The Cold War was being fought between two superpowers, and the geopolitical world of America’s 18th and 19th century statesmen was gone. From 1787-1945, the world was what international relations scholars call “multipolar,” a world filled with numerous political entities that were powerful enough to exert their wills over some places but not over others. Thus, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Russia, Germany, and the United States could invade and occupy some places in the world and claim them as part of their empires, but these powers were unable to invade and occupy the territory of another power.
World War II ended this multipolarity in violent, dramatic fashion, and what emerged from the ashes was a bipolar world, a contest between two superpowers instead of one between a number of (merely) great powers. As the foreign policy focus of the United States changed, from one of carving out an empire amongst rivals to one of fighting with a single rival for supremacy of the globe, the narrowness of the new objective might simply attract less thoughtful and more power-hungry people to the office of president. The bipolar world of the Cold War has disappeared, and the brief moment of unipolarity (which attracted an even worse personality type to the office of president) is also yielding to a new, multipolar world. Thoughtful statesmen may yet again be a part of our republic’s lifeblood.
Technology’s role in all of these world events is hard to assess, but surely the internet’s prominence, at the expense of television, plays an important role in these developments. So, for me, it’s three cheers for television. Thanks for the good times, TV, and here’s to a future I can feel optimistic about.