The Physics of Modern Media and Politics

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NewtonIn college, I studied the oft-quoted Aristotelian postulate “nature abhors a vacuum” — if there is a void in space, matter will rush in to fill it. (Apologies to my physics professors for my over-simplistic interpretation.) My observation of politics and the media over the years leads me to conclude that politics and physics have a lot in common. Barely 24 hours after the midterm elections, the media was speculating on the next election as potential candidate after candidate tried to get their names on every list of potential contenders for potential elective office, especially the Presidency.

Ask any politician or a person running for office a question about a difficult and contentious issue. Do you ever hear “I don’t know” or “I’m trying to understand all the ramifications” or “That will take serious study” or, God forbid, “I haven’t thought about it”? A well-respected physicist can give those kinds of answers, but a politician can’t, for that would create a vacuum that someone else might fill. There is no bigger vacuum in Washington, D.C., than an empty pocket, but there are plenty of lobbyists and big donors willing to fill that void in exchange for access and influence.

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Another one of my favorite physics principles is “For every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction” — Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Modern media catapults Newton’s law to a higher plane. The moment the President or a Democratic member of Congress offers a proposal or a statement, 24-hour media rushes in to find those who disagree, and the more outrageous the reaction, the better. There is no time for thought, for considered reflection, for reasoned debate. The reaction must be equal in force and instantaneous — equal and opposite.

Take the President’s recent executive action on immigration. Forget the fact that Congress has had years to propose and pass immigration reform and hasn’t done a cotton-pickin’ thing about it. Forget our over-taxed and unworkable immigration and naturalization system, too. Opponents of reform have reacted violently to Obama’s action, yet still offer no alternative — because an alternative would not be an equal and opposite reaction, and thus would violate Newton’s Third Law. (See? A visit to the nation’s capitol can be educational for your kids, just not in the way you might have thought.)

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I digress to insert an observation. Those who would justify Obama’s action by saying that immigrants need protection from deportation because “They’re serving you tonight” or “They’re doing the jobs no one else will do” or “We need more low-pay, low-skilled workers” do a disservice to the debate. Each and every immigrant who works, obeys our laws, pays their taxes and is here to have a better life for himself or herself and their families deserves our respect. They’re as human as you and I, and we enter a long path to destruction when we create categories of second-class citizenship in our country and our leaders refer to them as such. I hope the morality of our immigration debate is not simply economic in nature.

Here’s another of my physics favorites: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force” — Newton’s First Law of Motion. Nowhere can you see more examples of this law than in — you guessed it! — Washington, D.C. When is the last time Congress passed legislation of any substance or considered some true reforms? Our streets are crumbling, our bridges are collapsing, our tax code is a safe haven for corporations, but year after year we hear the same old Chicago Cubs cry, “Wait ’til next year.” Physicists would call this political inertia: “a body at rest stays at rest until the voters decide to act.”

The President embodies another part of Newton’s First Law in that he continues to stay in motion, spying on American citizens without apology, extending the war in Afghanistan without telling us, misleading the public whenever its deemed in our best interest to do so. Even that dyed-in-the-wool yellow dog, Senator Elizabeth Warren, has had enough of Obama’s continued reliance on advisors from Wall Street, which represents inertia in just a different form.

Is there an “unbalanced force” out there that can act on Congress’ body at rest and the President’s body in motion? Perhaps as we begin to consider the 2016 Presidential candidates we can apply a little physics to our analysis. First, does the candidate offer an “unbalanced force” to move Congress and at the same time alter the direction of the Presidential office? Second, does the candidate offer something more than an equal and opposite reaction to his or her opponents? And finally, does the candidate simply fill the vacuum of an empty office, offering nothing new and different in the way of material?