Transforming the Political Dialogue: A Call for Reason

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Al Gore
Author of Review
Carol White

The Assault on Reason by Al Gore (Penguin Group, New York, New York (2007).

That this book is not a typical campaign biography is really too bad. Would that every candidate wrote a biography of this quality! Reading it made me seriously consider enrolling in the ranks of the Draft Gore movement.

The book presents a compelling picture of the dangerous threats to republican government in the United States. Gore discusses how, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration has waged a consistent campaign to usurp power and justify the abrogation of traditional rights and practices by using the excuse of an amorphous terrorist threat. George Bush has in fact been the spokesperson if not architect of a major terror campaign against the American population.

Gore writes:

The truth is that American democracy is now in danger __ not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die.[2,3]

But Gore does not stop there. He probes beneath the Bush Administration's well-documented encroachments upon the constitution and the rights and duties that it prescribes, to ask the searching question: How can this have happened?

Yes George Bush and his advisors pedaled false intelligence in order to justify their desire to go to war in Iraq; yes they have deliberately sought to diminish the role of the congress and judiciary in order to create an "executive" presidency that threatens to become a dictatorship.

Yes George Bush is the author of policies that not only violate the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners, but are violating U.S. practices instituted by George Washington when he was the commander of U.S. forces.

But how can this have happened?

Gore's answer may not be complete, but I believe that it is an important contribution to the present pre-election discussion, whether or not he himself becomes a candidate.

Gore does not place responsibility solely with the Bush Administration, not withstanding that since shortly after 9/11 the Bush crowd have represented the main threat to our remaining constitutional freedoms and institutions of republican government. Nor does he place blame solely on the Democrats who abrogated their responsibility.

Gore makes the argument that the mass media __ particularly television __ deliberately employ techniques identified by psychologists to mesmerize the population and actually effect their cognitive processes. Long hours spent watching what is called news time are clearly a waste of time, but the media in Gore's view, plays an even more dangerous role.

He cites psychological research to the effect that

By contrast [to the written word], the visceral vividness portrayed on television has the capacity to trigger instinctual responses similar to those triggered by reality itself __ and without being modulated by logic, reason, and reflective thought. [19]

This use of triggers is not just a feature of typical dramatic shows where the audience responds to violence, but is a feature of news shows as well. He also cites studies of how television shows use sudden motion to transfix the viewer's eyes because we have inherited hard-wired mechanisms to alert us to sudden motion [21]. Well-sourced with 20 pages of footnotes, the book cites a series of references on the subject of vision and cognition [278,279], including an articlein the 2004 Scientific American.

These manipulative techniques are the basis for television advertising. And they are used today by campaign consultants to shape how candidates shape their "message" into sound bites.

Gore writes that he first experienced this shift to marketing candidates in 1984 when he ran for Senate. At that time media consultants convinced him of the necessity of using TV commercials . A number of different commercials were tested in order to determine which issues had the greatest impact on his vote. [9] He sees this experience as a harbinger of the present situation, in which important ideas are boiled down to 30-second commercials, or more likely not discussed at all.

As a result of the mind-numbing use of TV commercials, not only is political discourse stifled, but the cost of campaigning has risen astronomically, not only for the presidential race but for the house or senate campaigns as well. As a result, the candidate must spend much of his or her time fund-raising or he or she must be independently wealthy. All of this emphasis on raising funds distorts the electoral process. He writes:

Since voters still have the real power to elect their leaders, those who wish to exchange wealth for power must do so, in part, by paying for elaborate public relations campaigns to try to shape the opinion of the millions who spend so much time watching television. At times it seems as if a genuine democratic conversation is taking place, but it flows mainly in one direction __ from those who have raised enough money to buy the television advertising to those who watch the ads and have little effective means for communicating in the opposite direction. [78]

Gore does not supply easy answers to the present dangerous political situation. He presents a strong argument about how essential it is to defeat the Republican political machine in the next election; but he argues that although such a victory is absolutely necessary, it is not sufficient to save the republic. He expresses hope in the development of citizen journalism on the internet. [259] Gore demonstrates a profound understanding of how the internet can work to create a meaningful political dialogue. This book is an important contribution to the process.

About the Author: Carol White is Book Reviews Editor for ePluribus Media. She has edited a small science journal and is presently a free-lance writer, who covers the arts and related matters for her local newspaper.
ePluribus Contributors: Aaron Barlow, AvaHome, cho and roxy