Timbre. The word has its origins in music, referring to the quality of a note that distinguishes it from another, even if the two have the same pitch and loudness. When a sound is described as being rich, or warm, or perhaps tinny, that’s a description of timbre. The word, however, has also been applied to politics for as long as I can remember. Specifically, it is used in discussions about people aspiring for the presidency, although the term can be used in conjunction with any elected office, like senator, for instance.

What actually constitutes timbre, however, isn’t too easy to pin down. In some cases, it can refer to someone’s track record for getting the job done; in other instances, timbre can be used to refer to one’s perceived erudition or intelligence; and in yet other cases, timbre can simply mean that a person seems to embody what voters want in an elected official. As you can imagine, there was a time in politics when timbre was a significant factor in predicting whether a candidacy would fly high or go down in smoke. Increasingly, however, it is starting to feel like those days are irretrievably gone.

Today, sometimes it seems that jackasses have the upper hand. You can thank social media for that.

The basic calculus of politics is, and always will be, that the most popular candidate wins. In the old days, popularity typically meant you had done something massively significant and good—good for the nation, for the community, for the people—such that you made it to the news. The whole idea was to insinuate yourself into the national conversation. Once your name was in the papers or on television, people would know your name and talk about you and probably remember to vote for you on election day. No longer.

The rise of social media has all but supplanted the news as the primary engine of fame. Sure, you can still become popular through the traditional route of getting your name in the papers because you did something exceedingly well, but why bother when it is far easier to turn yourself into a meme? With any sort of luck, your gimmick can become viral, and thanks to our cultural obsession with fame, you can eventually be thought of as a legitimately awesome person. With apologies to Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, “when you’re famous, they think you really know.” Even better, if you get enough online notoriety, you can even become newsworthy and maybe even snag a few seconds of airtime on network news.

None of this even has to be organic. Virality, which was a term that originally described the phenomenon of online content being shared from person to person (like a virus), used to happen naturally. People either liked your content or they did not; they either shared your tweet or Facebook status or they ignored it. But now, anything can be made to go viral. And once content has been shared enough times, it no longer matters that the first few shares or retweets were totally bogus. In the end, anyone who wants it hard enough can now actually worm his way into the national conversation—and eventually parlay that into an elected office—without having to achieve anything actually noteworthy; without ever having shown timbre.

And that is a terrible place for a democracy to be.


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