One of the more trying aspects of dealing with conservatives is trying to talk to someone that lives in a reality separate and distinct from the one in which Earth resides. In few ways is that better illustrated than policy vs optics. You ask questions about efficacy in a policy debate. Will this work, do we need to do it, will the benefits outweigh the costs, etc. Facts run the show, emotions hold you back, and intellect is at a premium.
In optics, you ignore the facts, lie even when you don't feel like you have to, demonize people you disagree with and things you don't prefer, trivialize, appeal to emotion, and violate all precepts of civil conduct. A person who does all of this then falls prey to projection, and accuses anyone discussing policy of engaging in this abhorrent behavior. Any check or balance on this type of behavior, like the news media, is subsequently attacked in base terms so transparently false and pathetic that it has no choice but to fall in line.
The reasons why are many and are a discussion for another time.
Take this for example:
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum continues to reference President Abraham Lincoln when discussing his opposition to gay marriage. [...]
"Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass had a little debate about whether states have the right to do wrong," he told a group of roughly 50 supporters on Saturday. "If the institution that these states are propagating is wrong and harmful to the family, the states may have the legal right to do it, but as far as I'm concerned, they don't have the moral right to do it, and we should stand up and fight against what they're doing."
That is the politics of optics. It doesn't matter if a majority of the American people support same-sex marriage (they do), nor would it matter if same-sex couples have a constitutional right to equal treatment under the law (they do). Rick Santorum doesn't prefer it and doesn't like gay people, so a policy debate is off the table.
Invoking slavery is an appeal to emotion, which is inherently destructive to policy because people stop thinking rationally and start reacting blindly, without any thought to consequence or efficacy. Invoking morals as a standard - generally - means never coming to a common sense agreement as such standards can vary wildly even within a single family, much less an entire state or nation.
Finally, using inflammatory and really childish rhetoric - we should stand up and fight instead of we should all calm down and discuss this incredibly sensitive and important issue like adults - is the final piece of the puzzle. Trivializing a wide ranging issue that affects millions of people's lives, appealing to emotion, ignoring facts, on and on.
That then explains why conservatives make such poor leaders, yet remain mostly popular enough with their own people to get elected to positions of power and responsibility that demand policy over optics in order to function properly - hence explaining why government is so dysfunctional. It also explains why this civil society takes such an ugly turn for the worse whenever conservatives don't get exactly what they want. Taken to an extreme, the politics of optics ventures into religious-like extremism and absolutism, the kind where you would rather destroy something if you can't control it.
We make movies and write plays and novels about it all the time. If I can't have her, nobody will. If I can't control this land, nobody will. When Iraq couldn't have Kuwait during the Gulf War, Saddam's forces set fire to many oil wells, and ancient imperialistic cultures would poison wells from territory they were fleeing from to deny that land to anyone else.
We see that kind of warfare in politics now on a regular basis. If conservatives can't rule the way they want to, they simply stop the entire process so that nobody can lead.
None of that would be possible if the news media would stop humoring the politics of optics. Calling a lie and lie, criticizing politicians for appealing to emotion and fear instead of reason and strength, and shutting out social misfits obsessed with character politics (Muslim/Kenya/Socialism/Hitler) would result in a more informed populace that would stop electing liars and cowards to positions of power, and these sorts of things would stop happening.