One can almost hear the narrator’s voiceover as the news is reported and the debate is joined. Presidential politics, and media-age elections in general, more closely resemble an illusory ‘reality show’ than any substantive engagement with the critical issues of the day. If the Association of National Advertisers could select Barack Obama as ‘Marketer of the Year’ for 2008, then perhaps this year will bring another level of media acknowledgment. Joe Biden for an Emmy, anyone?
The question is less about why politics is increasingly staged and every soundbite test-marketed for mass appeal, but more about why we are even watching anymore. The ethos of the reality show (a perverse misnomer, to be sure) has come to dominate the airwaves, infesting not only entertainment but also the production of news itself, in the end blurring the line between them and ushering in an era in which ‘infotainment’ is not a denigration but a desirable position in the marketplace of ideas.
We can lay the blame at the feet of programmers who probably see reality shows as the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of television, costing less to produce than lavish star-driven fare and presenting ‘ordinary people’ characters ready-made for viewer identification. We can chastise advertisers for allowing the logic of product placement and the creation of faux controversies to push their wares. We can point the finger at corporate hegemons and moral entrepreneurs for the general dumbing-down of the culture, rendering us pliable subjects eager to embrace the latest style but distracted from substance. We can blame the news editors for prioritizing celebrity gossip over presenting authentic analysis.
But we rarely cast the critical gaze back at ourselves. Who watches this stuff, believes the inanity, buys the products, adopts the catchphrases, emulates the styles, and accepts the false reality? As I wrote back in 2009: “In this cult of personality masking as politics, we must acknowledge that the fault lies not in our superstars, but in ourselves.” We can pass the buck (an apt phrase), but in the end it’s still us who accept this worldview in which the tweet counts more than the treatise, the soundbite more than the sound argument, the wisecrack more than wisdom. We get what we accept.
So it’s no wonder that politicians have likewise embraced the trend. ‘Obama vs. Romney’ plays more like a wrestling grudge match, complete with sensational graphics and confrontational cutaways. The whole experience is intended to be visceral rather than cerebral, all planned to obfuscate rather than educate. Shall the candidates honestly discuss the perpetual resource wars that will dominate the globe for generations to come? Should they openly engage the realities of climate change and the manner in which we need to immediately change our way of life in order for life to continue at all? Would it be expedient to point out that the economy is a sham and we are but fodder for the 1%?
Perhaps the greatest tragedy lies in the persistent belief that our plutocracy is actually a democracy, that political power resides with ‘we the people’, and that the right electoral decisions will result in a better world. The salient point isn’t that the outcomes of elections don’t matter at all, but more so that they don’t matter enough. While the Obama presidency has lacked the full-on ‘dark clouds’ motif of the Bush years, and a smiling Biden might seem preferable to Darth Cheney, it remains the case that we continue our inexorable slide toward collective immolation regardless of who sits at the helm. Which presidential contestant will fix the economy? End war and halt ecological degradation? Side with workers vis-à-vis corporations, and distribute wealth downward rather than upward? (Maybe the Green Party candidate, but they aren’t booked on the show.) Not President Obomney.
Absurdly, we continue to focus in earnest on which multimillionaire we want representing the middle-class multitude, which purveyor of injustice is better suited to exercise just authority over us, which corporatist is the right one to rein in corporate power, which warmonger will work to bring us peace. Elections matter, but not enough. Can we still imagine a world where we no longer need corruption-addled politics, where monied interests no longer can buy and sell power at their whim, where the voices of human beings matter more than those of corporations? We need a society where the distance between those making decisions and those directly impacted by them is shrinking rather than expanding, a system in which the conditions of our lives are determined by real people in actual communities instead of by the machinations of money and the ministrations of madness.
A colleague recently forwarded an article to a listserv I’m on, along with a plaintive reminder that “the stakes are high” regarding the upcoming election. The forwarded link was to a New York magazine article validating the basic notion that “this election poses a fundamental choice to America.” And yet the article ambivalently observes that “neither candidate has a plausible blueprint to avoid political gridlock, and that, whoever wins, the stalemate of the past two years will grind on into the next four.” But still the article swings back the other way, affirming the “stakes are high” sentiment with the assertion that in the next presidential term, “the great stalemate between socialism and social Darwinism will break open and likely turn decisively in one direction or the other.”
Seriously? Socialism? When was that even on the table as a counterpoint to social Darwinism in America? It appears more so that we have a system of lockstep military-industrial control, with the meager remainder of cultural space occupied by a social Darwinism that is either predominantly or completely merciless, depending upon one’s major party affiliation. If “predominantly merciless” constitutes enough of a victory for you, or if “completely merciless” matches your perception of strength and justice, then pull that lever or text your selection or like that link for your preferred contestant. Even if you make the wrong choice, the show will be back on again next season, with new scandals and antipathies to keep you entertained. As long as you keep watching, all is well…