Opinions, Column

Is All Publicity Good Publicity?

In politics, one needs more than just determination and a good platform: one must also be a good entertainer. A successful politician, just like a successful showman, must know what the audience wants to hear and see. The most recent performance was done by none other than Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

The governor has been in the limelight these past few weeks for sending two planes of refugees from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14, making this recent stunt a cross-country one, not far from Boston College. He did this to outdo Greg Abbott’s bussing of migrants to Vice President Kamala Harris’ home at the National Observatory in mid-September. The justification for this action, according to the two showmen, is to send “illegal immigrants” to so-called “sanctuary states” to protest President Joe Biden’s administration’s seeming inaction to handle the crises on the border. The actions by DeSantis and Abbott drew intense outrage from liberal publications and politicians who decried their actions as “treating these vulnerable families as pawns,” and that was the point.

DeSantis is not acting in a vacuum here, far from it. He is acting within a well-established political framework which can best be surmised by the old adage, “all publicity is good publicity.” The 24/7 media news cycle and the proliferation of social media platforms allow people to have non-stop access to information. This is all to say that people are always watching, and you need to get their attention. As a result, politicians have mastered the fine art of theatrics. Even if half of the country disagrees with an action, the other half will learn about it and throw their support behind them. This happens so much that past controversies have been almost completely forgotten like when Ted Cruz read Dr. Seuss in Congress or when Matt Gaetz wore a gas mask in Congress. It seems like every other day, there are articles across news organizations that mention random problematic actions that a politician said or did or alluded to. What is often not talked about is the problematic nature of  news outlets only focusing on these events.

Whenever a politician garners the attention of the news outlets, it crowds out more relevant discourse on policies or crises. I’m reminded of the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, where a spin doctor produces a manufactured crisis in Albania to secure a president’s re-election after a sex scandal. (Before you ask, this was before the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of Clinton’s presidency.) The movie’s warning is as poignant today as it was back then, politicians are all too eager to distract us with some inflammatory action rather than having to face real criticism.

There is another side to this coin, where instead of taking a real action expected of them by their base, a politician will instead offer meaningless platitudes. Take for example, when the mayor of Washington, D.C named a street “Black Lives Matter Plaza” during the peak of racial unrest in 2020. This action reformed nothing, let alone addressed any of the criticisms being raised against the police department. As such, it should come as no surprise that the Black Lives Matter organization criticized the decision. This is not to say that these kinds of actions are outwardly harmful, but when done without the accompaniment of tangible changes, they are disingenuous and meaningless. Imagine an alternate world where Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became a federal holiday, but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was never passed. It would be absurd, and yet America is living with this kind of absurdity all of the time.

By continuing doing this, politicians worsen the absurdity of it all. Every time a new stunt is performed by a politician, another must up the ante and perform something even more egregious. Likewise, people pay lip service to a cause instead of fighting for tangible reform. We must hold our politicians accountable for their voting records and not their Twitter history.

October 16, 2022