We witnessed this phenomenon last week during the first presidential debate. Washington pundits and policy wonks tried to sift through the rhetorical sandstorm for logical solid ground amid such concepts as Mitt Romney's revenue-neutral tax cuts and Barack Obama's wealth-creation proposition of tossing more money into the fiscal black hole of "new energy." For much of the voting public, however, the debate seemed like a foreign film missing its subtitles.
Twitter streaming of the event was rife with confused political science students calling out for help in trying to understand what they were watching under pressure of having to report on it for a class. Here's the animal-world equivalent: Behavioral studies have shown that when a wolf is placed next to a cage with food inside, the wolf will immediately try to figure out how to get at the food. But when the same is done with a domesticated canine -- one that follows its master around the house, drooling on the parquet until it's tossed a Milk Bone -- the dog will take one look at the cage before turning and looking to the nearest human to reconcile the injustice. Sadly, far too many voters have become helpless lapdogs in their civic engagement.
I understood that the words coming out of Romney and Obama's mouths were English, but I'm not going to pretend to understand what they were saying -- particularly since they didn't seem to understand the actual facts behind the words coming out of their mouths, either. It was like staring at one of those art projects you make as a kid, where you dump some colored water onto a blank canvas and blow on it through a narrow straw until you pass out. When you wake up, you have an original work totally open to interpretation: It could be fireworks or blood splatters from a murder scene. The result is all in the eye of the beholder. And so was this debate, which was light on fact and also on the scientific-style proofs required to drill those facts deep into the skeptical mind.
Thankfully for the candidates, there aren't many skeptical minds around these days. When people aren't being walked down the path to understanding something foreign to them, they tend to fall back on what they already preconceive. As with interpretive art, they will see what they want, with their minds filling in the missing information.