The Bankruptcy of Optics
Every business has its jargon, and politics is no exception. The thing about jargon, though, is that it eventually gets so overused that it the words cease to have meaning; they stop being vehicles of communication and instead become simple totems that people display to let each other know that they’re part of the same club.
As a professional communicator, this drives me nuts.
Of course, some jargon terms are more overused than others. And in modern American politics, one of the most played-out jargon terms is optics.
When political people talk about optics, what they’re talking about is how something will look to the general public. So you hear statements like this a lot: “I can’t vote for that bill! The optics would be terrible.” Or, translated into plain English: “It would make me look bad.”
It’s natural for politicians to worry about how things will make them look; they keep their jobs by being sure to always look good. But it’s possible, if you spend enough time worrying about how you look, for you to reach a point where you think the optics of things are disconnected from the things themselves; where you look at a problem and think that changing the optics solves the problem itself, instead of just putting you in a better position to solve the problem.
This is where most of our leaders are today.
You can see this very clearly just by watching our political discourse. It’s obsessed with optics. The chattering classes talk about issues almost exclusively in terms of what posture leaders should take regarding those issues, rather than what they should actually do about them.
You can see this on display right now by watching the State of the Union address.
First, some background. You need to understand that our betters have decided that one of the Great Problems facing America today is excessive partisanship. If only we could all get along, they cry, everything would be better!
(For the record, I disagree with this sentiment; I think that partisanship is a healthy development in a democratic society, because it indicates that people take the process seriously. The only systems without partisanship are systems where nobody cares what happens, because nothing’s at stake. But for the sake of discussion, let’s grant the point.)
So what’s the solution? Our august solons thought this question over, and came back with this proposal:
You see, normally, when the President delivers his State of the Union message to Congress, the chamber is divided by party, with Democrats sitting on one side of the room and Republicans on the other. But at tonight’s address, the chamber will have “mixed seating” where every D has to sit with an R.
Which is a fine symbolic gesture, as symbolic gestures go. But that’s all it is: a gesture. Nobody’s giving up anything real; none of them are sacrificing anything tangible to move forward the agenda of diminishing partisanship.
It’s pure, unadulterated, 100% optics.
So, you ask, if Date Night on Capitol Hill is just optics, what would a non-optics measure to reduce partisanship look like? Here’s one possibility. Right now, dozens of executive branch offices and Federal judgeships are vacant, for no other reason than because a Senator decided in each case to prevent that chamber from voting on that nominee. The Senators don’t have to say why they don’t want a particular nominee voted on; the genteel procedures of that chamber don’t require that. But it’s well known that many of these “secret holds” were placed by Republican Senators to stick it to the man who submitted those nominations, President Obama. In other words, straight-up partisanship.
Now, imagine if tomorrow morning a Republican Senator came forward and announced that, in order to help decrease the scourge of partisanship, he was going to disclose all his secret holds on current nominations — and then release them.
Would that be smart politics? Probably not. But it would be something real. That Senator would be giving up something valuable; after all, if he’s stopped a key nomination in its tracks, he could use that leverage to barter with the Administration for other things he wants in exchange for letting it move forward. That’s a useful bargaining chip. And by giving it up unilaterally, he’d be making a concrete contribution to the cause of reducing partisanship, which he professes to care about so deeply.
But no leaders, Republican or Democrat will do this. They all decry the crushing burden of partisanship, but nobody will do anything real to lessen it.
The thing is, I’m not convinced that this is because they’re too cheap, or cowardly, or lazy to make that sacrifice. I think it’s because the idea has never occurred to them.
Why? Because they’re focused on the optics. They think that solving the optics solves the problem. So something like tonight’s mixed seating stunt becomes, in their mind, a real step forward, a real accomplishment.
Which it is not, of course. It’s evanescent, ephemeral. It will vanish tomorrow as completely as if it never existed at all. Which, in a real sense, it didn’t.
This is the first challenge we as a nation will have to overcome if we hope to hold on to our greatness: to choose leaders who understand that the only true way to change how something looks is to change how it actually is. And who have the courage to do the heavy lifting required to change things in the real world, rather than just change how those things look.