Optical Illusion

The first government shut down since 2013 is now behind us. It came and went in a hurry, and in the end it affected … well, nobody I know anyway. I heard that there wasn’t much trash pickup in national parks over the weekend, but that’s about it.

Still, it happened. And other than the president, who tweeted last May that “what the nation needs is a good shutdown,” I suspect most people think government shutdowns make Washington look like a bunch of dysfunctional toddlers fighting over who gets the biggest shovel in the sandbox.

Now, of course, both sides are spending their days blaming each other for our sorry state of affairs. On Oct. 22 the polls rolled out. Care to guess who Republicans tended to blame for the shutdown? Democrats! And can you guess who Democrats tended to blame for the shutdown? Republicans! This is, I know, surprising news.

If it had gone on longer, the blame game would have been ratcheted up several notches. You would have seen Republicans doing live interviews in front of closed offices, or outside military bases. Democrats would be doing their live interviews in front of, um, well, I’m not sure exactly. But there’s got to be a DACA office somewhere.

Because these days it’s all about the optics. “Optics,” in case you’ve missed it, has become the biggest government buzzword since “alternative facts.” Both sides worry to the point of obsession about the optics of a story. If Senator X is standing in shirt sleeves in front of a busy manufacturing plant while talking about job creation it makes him look tougher and more commanding. Touring a disaster zone while wearing a hard hat and jeans makes you appear more concerned, involved and down to earth.

This is nothing new, but only lately has the political class seemed to go all-in on the optic bandwagon. They learned it, of course, from television news. Think: Is there really a reason for the morning show reporter to be standing in the dark and cold outside a gas station that was robbed six hours ago? Of course not, except for the fact that it looks good. It’s proof that the station is Working for You, or Live, Local, and Latebreaking, or On Your Side, or …whatever. Viewer research overwhelming shows we want our news live from the scene — whether the reporter has any real reason for being there or not.

But I digress. Back to politics in the era of optics: Aug. 29, 2017. Donald and Melania Trump board Marine One on their way to tour Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Melania climbs into the chopper wearing stilettos. Photos are taken. A minor media frenzy ensues.

Let’s step back. Does Melania care about the suffering in Houston? Probably, but who knows? More to the point, who cares? The optics were terrible, and that’s what’s important. The international court of social media was convened, and the judgments were swift, severe, and weren’t all made by Democrats. Melania the elitist, tone deaf to suffering, etc.

Once again, “optics” trumped whatever lay in its path. Seeing is believing, even when what we’re seeing may have little to do with the truth.

These days politicians must factor the optics of whatever they’re going to do or say into everything they do and say. Good optics, happy voters. Lousy optics, prepare for blowback. This is why representatives from opposing parties can never be seen shaking hands, or eating together at a restaurant, or (God forbid) smiling in each other’s company. Somewhere there’s a camera, and a picture can take well more than a thousand words to explain, and in the end the explanation won’t work anyway.

And so we’re played like fiddles, because the people in power know we have no stomach for details, and that we’ll accept our most simplistic emotional reactions to a staged photo-op or accidental gotcha shot as an acceptable stand-in for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So who’s really at fault here? Them or us? Truthfully, I wish I knew.

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