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.
For example, Romney says he has a revenue-neutral tax cut plan yet can't explain the math. But he also says it's never been tried before, and he seems excited about it. We also know that Romney has a business background, so, hey, maybe he has the secret sauce and should be given the benefit of the doubt. Obama supporters, meanwhile, didn't see a listless president thoroughly lacking in the kind of passion and energy required to overcome the economic quicksand into which the nation has been sinking -- but rather someone who was just being "polite."
Particularly in the first 30 minutes of the debate, these two peacocks preened and postured while attempting to woo voters with a language that sounded like something that would result from a tax policy manual mating with a focus group report.
Many viewers were either asleep or lost until Romney mentioned a "Sesame Street" character. Suddenly, social media went nuts with people Photoshopping Big Bird and his friends under bumper sticker sayings like "Occupy Sesame Street!"
Perhaps in the next debate every critical point can be made with a pop-culture reference. Immigration policy can have a Justin Bieber hook. Foreign policy can be linked to George Clooney. Any issues touching the American family can be channeled through discussion of TLC's "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."
Critical thinkers are going to have to dig on their own to get real answers anyway. So for the rest of us, the process may as well be entertaining.
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