Watching the recent presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney made me wish I had a time machine to return to the days when Richard Nixon was the leader of the so-called Free World. He may have been as slippery as an eel and an outright crook, but you had to give him credit for one thing -- the man knew how to lie.
In the ideal democratic polity, elections should be times where leading candidates air their respective policies, defending them in public debates, while at the same time criticizing those espoused by their opponents. Of course, with every election promise comes the possibility of deception. A candidate might lie about their past actions, or make a promise of a policy change they don't carry out. So policy-based politics is epistemological, a politics of truth and lies.
It's also a politics of opposing values. It asks the electorate such questions as, "which is the right thing to do for the country -- wage peace or war, promote free enterprise or the welfare state?"
Television changed things. It brought with it a new focus -- not so much on policy as on the image of the candidate. Now looking good was as important as being right. Handlers and spin doctors started to spend as much time crafting their candidates' public images as on substantive statements of policy. The right suit, the right tie, the right talking points were things candidates and their backroom mentors strove for. That's why politicians appearing in TV debates all dress the same.
We can pinpoint the time when it all changed to the first 1960 TV debate between our old friend Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The popular myth surrounding the debate was that radio listeners thought Nixon won. But most TV viewers, preferring JFK's youthful charm and easy manner to Nixon's pale, tired, unshaven video image, felt that Kennedy won.
Though image politics is still very much with us, we are entering a third age of democratic politics as a result of the 24-hour cable news cycle, social networking, YouTube, Twitter, mass apathy and at least in the American case, the archaic electoral college system of electing a president, which elevates a few "swing states" to paramount importance.
As a result of all this we get meta-politics, image politics taken to its absolute degree. Here are its rules: first and foremost, avoid making testable truth claims about one's policies. Second, if your opponent violates Rule One by making such claims, hammer him or her mercilessly. Third, avoid at all costs making any statement about values if there's a chance it will turn even a small body of voters in a key geographical area against you. Vague generalities such as "America is great" or "I want to create jobs" are fine, but attacks on the military, gay marriage or small business are not. You can't be attacked as a liar or as morally reprehensible if you avoid making factual or moral claims altogether.
In at least the first two debates, Mitt Romney was a consummate meta-politician. Dapperly dressed and coiffed, he deflected Obama's attempts to pin him to specific policies and values like Yoda with a lightsaber. Eight times in the first debate Romney rejected either the president's or the moderator's description of one of his own policies without clearly re-stating exactly what it is.
His only believable concrete policy proposal (other than the ridiculous "we'll cut the deficit by cutting taxes while removing deductions and loopholes and increasing military spending") was his promise to end Obamacare, which immediately became a meta-political claim due to the fact that he instituted a similar system of health care in his own state of Massachusetts.
Obama was marginally less of a meta-politician than Romney, gently reminding the "folks at the top" who probably won't vote for him anyway that they should contribute a bit more to the national coffers than the indigent while avoiding saying anything that might sound like a defence of socialism or an attack on the middle class.
These debates weren't about policy disagreements since we rarely found out what policies each politician was defending. Welcome to the age of meta-politics.