In a lecture last week, I explained to 200 college freshman about opinion leaders and the two-step flow of information. This is the process by which well-informed opinion leaders shape the political views of less informed Americans. These opinion leaders can be found all over the place. In fact, the Internet has made it that much easier for wannabe political elites to bullhorn their views to the public.
A few opinion leaders like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews have audiences in the millions. My reading of the political science literature is that these pundits do not necessarily change election outcomes because they primarily preach to their respective choirs. Conservatives listen to Hannity and O’Reilly and liberals watch Maddow and Matthews to confirm what they already believe.
That part of political punditry does not bother me. What is more problematic is how these pundits often focus on the superficial horse-race aspects of politics.
By that, I mean, despite the 24/7 news cycle, it still remains difficult to find substantive policy discussions on major policy issues. A Room for Debate feature in the New York Times picks up on this question, asking what the election would look like without the incessant reporting about polls. A few likely scenarios would play out.
First, turnout would be higher. Without indications one way or the other that one candidate was in the clear lead, voters might be less inclined to stay home on Election Day. Many Americans, convinced the outcome is a foregone conclusion, abstain from the vote.
Second, in a world without polls, pundits could not spend every minute talking about who is leading the race that day, and instead, would (hopefully – the non-lazy ones, at least) spend more time discussing actual policy implications of a vote for one candidate or the other.
Third, if voters relied less on polling, and pundits spent more time talking policy, Americans would be less susceptible to histrionic blabbering about socialism, communism, death panels, and all the other wasted-breath, Ann Coulter-style ad-hominem attacks characterizing what we call “debate.”
After the first presidential debate, the punditocracy tarried Obama for his passiveness, yet, few focused on the fact that many agreed with Obama’s answers. Instead, pundits focused on style, not substance. As a result, all Americans lost.