The vain fantasy of total media control

It’s a mistake political junkies frequently make. Consumed with the ins-and-outs of day to day politics, with the 24-hour telenovela of who said what, where, to whom and how, we tend to project our obsessive interest onto a public that really couldn’t care less. It’s a pitfall that Venezuela’s ultimate political junkie couldn’t escape from yesterday, as he declared that his popularity rating would hover at around 80% if it wasn’t for the "media campaign" against him.

The idea that Chávez still doesn’t understand the reasons why people don’t like him is somewhat surprising. It shows remarkably little growth and sophistication, and does not bode well for freedom of the press moving forward.

For once, though, I don’t want to be too harsh on Chávez, simply because the misunderstanding he incurs is so widespread. It’s the perfect example of a Conventional Absurdity: a notion that’s implicitly believed by almost everybody yet is demonstrably wrong.

Normal people just don’t find politics fun enough to follow as an entertainment option. You (given that you’re reading this blog) and I (given that I’m writing it) are part of a freakish minority that finds following politics to be rewarding in itself, and however much we are consciously aware that not everybody thinks like us, we tend to forget it. 

Most people are what political scientists describe as "low-information voters," and their political attitudes are strongly – often terrifyingly – impervious to what is actually said in the public sphere. Instead, they tend to project onto that sphere judgments about their lives and the circumstances facing them, following a crude heuristic device that figures that if times are good the incumbent must be doing his job well, and if times are bad, he must be doing something wrong.

Lest you get the wrong idea, this isn’t a lament about "ignorant Venezuelans." This is a fairly universal observation. It accounts, for instance, for the long-term observed trend that links presidential approval in the US to a metric as simple as the unemployment rate:

Of course, the fit is by no means perfect. A "honey-moon period" is clearly visible in the data when a new president takes over. And a few singularly major developments from the discursive sphere can nudge the numbers significantly off their path: the clearest instances in this chart are the permanent shift in attitudes towards Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra scandal broke in 1986, and George W. Bush’s big popularity spike following the September 11th attacks. 

Such events are rare, though, and what’s really striking about the chart is the opposite. It’s just really hard for a president to buck the opinion atmosphere created by the economy – proxied here by the unemployment rate. It’s the economy, stupid – always has been, always will be.

For all the time and effort we spend discussing the ins and outs of everyday political debates, the real action in terms of a leader’s popularity has disturbingly little to do with the words spoken in the public sphere. There just aren’t enough political junkies out there for those everyday twists and turns to have a big impact – and, at any rate, political junkies tend to be strong partisans who rarely change political allegiances on the basis of new information. 

Which is why I’m pretty confident in saying that Chávez’s poll numbers would be in the toilet by now even if the media was every bit as docile as he clearly intends to make it. With the economy shrinking, prices rising, real incomes falling, water not coming out of the faucets and electricity not flowing through the wires, no amount of media control is going to save Chávez from the extraordinarily negative opinion climate his own incompetence has wrought. 

The fact that he imagines it would, though, bodes badly for Venezuelans’ freedom to express themselves.