The age of cringe

A political campaign is a communication process — find the right message, target that message to the right group of voters and repeat that message again and again. Democracy, after all, depends on shared truths; and autocracy, on shared lies. Let that be clear for all our sakes in May 2022.

Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on October 06, 2020

It used to be that there was a modicum of behavior in politics. Leaders and candidates listen. They use politically correct terms and phrases. They do not reveal, as much, their personal sense of entitlement, and power is an evenhanded kiln (no burnt aftertaste, right?). Leaders consciously frame their positions in order to hit the middle in an array, where most of the voters are. Communication, after all, is not shouting, going by the highest shrill or decibel, or drowning out someone, a group, a race or nations to get a point across. You just can’t in this era of oversensitive heat maps. Today, being emotive and, mind you, unemotional means having the biggest stick, disrespecting diversity and strutting around like the most colorful peacock on the floor. The art and science of communication has lost its purpose, and words are bullets aimed at hitting a target.

The modern presidential debate was invented in 1960. Truly an American practice, students, practitioners and political operatives and junkies are always watching to learn and appreciate the way Western democracies evolve. The art and science of political communication grew and was enriched because of the tradition. Debate is a “process that involves formal discussion on a particular topic.” In a debate, “opposing arguments are put forward to argue for opposing viewpoints.” It involves “logical consistency, factual accuracy, and some degree of emotional appeal to the audience are the elements in debating,” where one side often prevails over the other party by presenting a more superior “context” or framework of an issue. In a formal debating contest, there are rules for participants to discuss and decide on differences; within a framework, defining how they will do it. It used to be that a great performance in debates was the “kicker” to win a political contest. Today, it could shoot down any campaign if the candidates do not have discipline in communication and stick to the message. One does not play to the gallery only. The candidate should talk to the bigger audience beyond the idiot box.

So, it was a cringeworthy moment to watch the first US presidential debate between the incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden last Sept. 29, 2020 in Cleveland. The split screen further created a distortion for all those watching because the global audience looked at reactions and body language instead of what was being said, which got drowned out by the shouting that took place. It was the worst of debates and, except for very few contrasting messages, nothing went through clearly. James Fallows should probably rewrite his “Damaged Culture;” this time in reference to his country, the United States. In his column in The Atlantic, Fallows was kinder to the US than he was to the Philippines in his 1987 article when he said, “but for tonight I’ll say this was a disgusting moment for democracy. Donald Trump made it so, and Chris Wallace let him. I hope there are no more debates before this election.” Disgusting is kinder than being judged by an American that the Philippines was a damaged culture. How would you now characterize the United States, the land of democracy?

In the afternoon, it was again cringe time to watch Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano’s offer to resign. A gentleman’s agreement, called 15-21, had been personally brokered by President Rodrigo Roa Duterte (PRRD), thinking it would be honored and respected. As I wrote in an earlier column, “Cayetano would serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives for the first 15 months of the 18th Congress while Velasco would succeed to serve for the remaining 21 months under a term-sharing agreement.” The change would occur in October 2020, and that is the reason the current speaker has ruled that the “House of Representatives will try to finish deliberations on the proposed P4.506 trillion national budget for 2021 by the end of September.” This would appear historical, but the back room is saying this is to ensure that the incoming speaker, Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, could no longer tinker with the General Appropriations Act (GAA), ensuring a tight grip by the group of Cayetano as the administration rolls out in 2021 prior to the filing of the certificates of candidacy in October 2021. Just as PRRD was confronted with pork-like insertions in GAA 2019 which he did not release during the campaign season, he can very well do it again in the GAA 2021. As has been stated early on, the speakership is a vote of one man, the President. To postpone budget deliberations for two days after the speech of the current speaker showed to all who it is who commands power. Such strength emanates from the position itself because of PRRD. Surely the current speaker cannot invoke numbers since he didn’t have any in the beginning, and that is why the President had to intervene, or has Speaker Cayetano forgotten that?

Politics has gone down the gutter, and statesmen are found lacking these days. These show how voters are no longer important in the framing of issues, policies, programs and the like.

Heated exchange is for the purpose of landing in the hyperactive social media platforms.

Drive the engagement, make it emotional and people will follow and share, but that has reached its utility because voters are turned off by the way individuals with power behave. It used to be that public office is a public trust, and political communication strengthens that proposition. These days though, much is lost in the exchange. And this does not serve democracy at all for “truths are bartered for lies,” earning per click. “Fake news outperforms real news. Studies show lies spread faster than truths,” and today, the Goebbels of yesterday are put to shame because even mainstream media platforms are partaking of the deadly concoction.

According to Melissa Dahl’s book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, cringe is “the intense and visceral reaction produced by an awkward moment, an unpleasant kind of self-recognition, where you suddenly see yourself through someone else’s eyes. It’s a forced moment of self-awareness, and it usually makes you cognizant of the disappointing fact that you aren’t measuring up to your own self-concept.” YouTube video essayist and entertainer Natalie Wynn, on the other hand, has perhaps the most detailed explanation of internet cringe.

Her basic argument is that “internet cringe culture is complex and probably darker than most people realize. We don’t just cringe at ourselves online — in fact, there is an online ecosystem built around cringing at other people. And while sometimes our internet cringe can come from a place of empathy and mutual embarrassment, we also frequently cringe at people with contempt and misplaced anger or disappointment.” There are two emotionally draining types: embarrassment-based cringe (EBC) and contemptuous-based cringe (CBC).

EBC can be “directed at either yourself or other people, and it is a form of cringe based on empathy — because either you are doing the cringe and you’re embarrassed or because someone else is being cringeworthy and you can relate.” CBC can also be “directed at either yourself or other people, but it has two different underlying facts — the first is that it is a form of cringe based on contempt and mockery, and the second is that the person causing the cringe is often oblivious (or seems oblivious) to the ways in which their behavior is cringeworthy.”

A winning political campaign is most often the one that takes the time to “target voters, develops a persuasive message and follows through on a reasonable plan to contact voters.”

All campaigns must repeatedly communicate a persuasive message to people, who will vote. This is “the golden rule” of politics. A political campaign is a communication process — find the right message, target that message to the right group of voters and repeat that message again and again. Democracy, after all, depends on shared truths; and autocracy, on shared lies. Let that be clear for all our sakes in May 2022.

About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
Other Articles