In Vermont, candidates depend less on television to establish themselves in the minds of voters. Here we’re more likely to meet them in person and to size them up as actual people. And this connection gives a comforting sense that, at least in Vermont, democracy still works. But these days with media everywhere, most of the country seems newly vulnerable to the power of the image to overshadow the subtlety and nuance of actual reality.
This isn’t a new idea. People have been talking about the power of the image since the invention of television. As a kid, I loved television, and always wondered what I would look like if I were on television. To see oneself on the screen seemed like it would be some sort of validation. Well, I’ve been on television a few times in my role as journalist, and I found it kind of humbling — even if I knew the image wasn’t really me.
On a recent trip, I spent more time than I wanted in an airport where televisions beaming CNN were constantly in front of me. I couldn’t hear the sound, but I gained a new appreciation for the importance of the visual image — especially that of the human face — in shaping our reality. And the parade of faces I saw in the airport drove home to me how what’s real to the casual viewer is, in fact, the image.
Now numerous candidates are trying to fix themselves in our minds as a certain kind of thing — a certain TV role that we will be willing to subscribe to for a continuing four-year run. Their political programs, and the reality of their personalities, aren’t so immediately obvious to us as the image of their faces. That’s why national politics seems to require a new sort of visual literacy, a learned ability to see what’s real amid the fakery, to discern which image might point to a more solid reality. We don’t always get it right, but we have to keep trying.
Even in Vermont we are part of the national media ocean, and even if we’ve shaken the hand of Bernie Sanders at the local diner, that hand shake and Bernie himself are only part of a bigger and more complicated story.