Tom Messner

Futurism has fallen on hard times. Maybe its decline began when Nostradamus’s 500-year-old prediction of the end of the world in 1999 proved to be overstated. Whatever, it seems hard for a futurist to get a decent gig. Once, Criswell was so popular he could get a regular spot on The Tonight Show and serve as a permanent judge on The Gong Show.

The first futurist, Isaiah, conjured prophecies that were taken so seriously that both Christians and Jews believe in his projection of a Messiah—Christians believing the prophecies now fulfilled and Jews believing, but still waiting.

Our contemporary futurists, on the other hand, are remembered for being futurists but not for anything of value that they saw in the future. Future Shock, big best seller. Does anyone remember what Alvin Toffler’s book augured, other than the breakthrough marketing notion of six different covers for the same book? Buckminster Fuller was called a futurist, but his geodesic dome was only a curiosity, and he is not so much the future as history.

The media oracle, too, Marshall McLuhan, was more of a pastist than a futurist. His great insight—that new media at first take on the forms of the old media (movies shot stage plays, radio presented vaudeville minus the jugglers, TV kinescoped radio programs, and Ed Sullivan, for his part, brought back vaudeville and the jugglers)—depended more on looking back than ahead. The impatience with today’s new media, interactivity and the Internet, rests on that observation, and the new media (like TV and radio and film before them) still await their own artists. TV was probably fulfilled as a medium when Ruby shot Oswald; radio took a little longer to find Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern; film was luckier that D.W. Griffith happened along only shortly after its invention.

Nowhere are futurists more at a loss to explain things than in politics. Electoral politics. Presidential electoral politics.

Aided by internal polls conducted by the parties, external polls from Gallup, Zogby, the cable and broadcast networks, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Newsweek, focus groups in such profusion they become as quantitative as polls, and demographic/psychographic/historic data no consumer company could approach, they spent a billion dollars on presidential advertising this year.

Know what the breakthrough medium was in the 2004 presidential election? Was it the Internet, with attentive bloggers exposing Dan Rather’s peccadilloes? Film, with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 revealing Saudi Arabian flight plans, Afghan gas lines and Bush-Bin Laden genealogical connections? Television, with replays of Kerry’s post-Vietnam Genghis Khan testimony and his “I voted for that bill just before I voted against it” circumlocution?

Nah, the keen-eyed futurist who wanted to find the breakthrough electoral medium this time needed to look 80 years backward. To radio.

For the Republicans, buying time on evangelical Christian radio stations to increase turnout of their base support was such a magical rejection of futurism, it was courageous. Courageous, because in the political ad arena, there is only television and direct mail. Underfinanced alderman races use radio. Sure, you can be courant by suggesting investment in the Internet, and it appeared early on that Howard Dean’s campaign succeeded with that digression. But picture the person pitching the idea of a major radio buy to a presidential campaign. I can, because I once (in 1988) suggested newspaper ads to run before the Iowa caucuses. The suggestion got blank expressions, a polite shuffling of papers and rapid movement to the next agenda item, which if I recall was the notion of doubling or tripling up on the TV buy and doing a last-minute mail drop on putative caucus attendees.

We should be in awe of the radio buy because it was so targeted, so sectional and so different in its intent (turnout) that it couldn’t be judged by poll movement. Since it can’t be judged by poll movement, the Republicans had to be confident that on Election Day they would get their increased turnout. On the other hand, run some broad TV across the battleground states and on national cable in a presidential race, and if polls don’t show movement, the TV gets shelved and some other attack or strategy replaces it. Since most spots fail in this kind of testing arena with that kind of criteria, all failing presidential efforts and even some successful ones (1992, 2000 both sides) end up with a spot du jour campaign.

That French guy, Paul Valéry, when he said (loose translation), “The future. It ain’t what it used to be,” must have had media in mind.