One of the more unusual phenomena in Thailand concerning its political system is the way political advertising goes on in a little village like Baan Mae Sa Luang. Yesterday morning I had some business to do at the farm, and my bike’s tires were so flat they were not willing to go anywhere so I came back by the slow way of walking my bike. As I was walking along the main road there came the sound of an advertising jingle behind me, and it reminded me of the sound that ice cream trucks make in their tours around the neighbords where I have lived. But when the truck passed me with its jingle, it was a truck with a giant political billboard on its back.
Then, today, while I was walking from my apartment to the school, I saw a different truck with a different political jingle on it, all in Thai of course, for a different and rival political party. The trucks were nearly the same—a driver and (usually) a passenger with a giant billboard on it back showing what number on the ballot the political party has. So far I have only seen the red #1 (Pheu Thai) and the blue #10 (the Democrats) do their advertising here in town. What does political advertising say about a culture? If your political advertising is made up of somewhat silly jingles that remind an admittedly unusual American of nutty buddies and orange creamsicles, you are probably not engaging potential voters in a very nuanced or intellectual way.
And that is not necessarily a bad thing, because surely not all (or perhaps even most) voters are very nuanced and intellectual sort of people. That said, treating your voting population as if it has the intelligence of children rushing out with their parents’ money to buy frozen snickers bars strikes me personally as an insult. I am personally of the belief that if we want people to make wise and informed judgments we need to provide enough information to do so, not in thirty second soundbytes (whether it comes from an attack ad on the television or from one literally on the back of a truck driven around some small rural Thai village), but in larger and deeper forms.
It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am a huge fan of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. During the 1858 campaign for the Illinois Senate both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, two of the foremost statesmen in the entire United States at the time, had seven debates in all parts of Illinois. Their debates were three hours long. One person would begin and speak for an hour, then the second person would have a one and a half hour rebuttal, and the first person would close with a thirty minute rebuttal. In these twenty-one hours worth of debating in front of large audiences of voters, these two men gave a very strong defense of their very different worldviews. Even though I strongly favor Lincoln’s over Douglas’, the fact is that both men were serious about explaining where they stood, and that matters. One does not have to know every policy that someone is going to vote for or support in someone’s term of office, but one ought to know the worldview of the people one is being asked to support, so that one can choose that person whose worldview reflects your own, and accept the consequences of those decisions in specific policies and actions.
Nowadays even if you can get two speakers with two positions (and not just politically, but also on controversial matters of faith or history), there is no patience with a long explanation, but everyone wants answers that are thirty seconds or a minute long. It is as if we have no patience with nuance but rather want perfect commercial-length precision. We can only have that level of answer on something that is completely trival and pointless, and so our politics (and our religious beliefs and historical and cultural understanding) is correspondingly shallow. If we want depth we have to leave the kiddie pool and take a dive into the deep end. If we want intellectual and moral depth as well, we have to leave behind the ice cream truck jingles and wrestle with deep and serious questions. Can we do that, though? Or can we only think as deeply as it takes for us to hum a short jingle or to memorize a slogan? If so, there is no way we will ever find good leaders or solutions to our problems.