As the sun rose on Thursday morning, Hilary Rosen found herself at the center of American political debate. The fact that Mitt Romney’s campaign reacted so quickly to her comments, as well as the subsequent and lightning fast throwing Rosen under the bus from Democrats, illustrates two basic facts about politics today. One: you win when you use unexpected events to change the parameters of the public discussion. Two: you sacrifice logic, common sense, and sometimes even your scruples to do so.
I’ve covered politics for about 11 years now, and I’ve escaped the cloister of cynicism by paying attention to what campaigns and elections do well: they synthesize mass amounts of information and help a rather disinterested public make critical choices about the future of the country. Using the same mechanisms, many of these same political actors can exploit human cognitive biases, creating drama and division, and nudging the media panopticon to pay attention to the most insane and irrelevant issues of the day. Veep keenly mines these manipulative techniques for comedy. And Rosen’s story exemplifies several of them.
The first problem is outrage magnification. Let’s say that you believe that Rosen’s comments that stay-at-home-of-five Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life,” even construed the way she intended to construe them, violated a sensible boundary that exists in the real world. When boundaries are violated, we tend to want to see the violator punished, or reproached. Fair enough. Fairer still is the deep stakes that liberals and conservatives have in the debate about women, gender roles and the economy. Here’s the thing: without the help of the conservative universe, no one would have noticed. There would be no controversy. There would be nothing.