Monday, September 3, 2012

The Age of Show Business: Politics as Spectacle

It is difficult to determine which generated more blustery wind and hot air: Hurricane Isaac or the Republican National Convention. Indeed, the entire convention was so inane, vacuous and lacking in any intellectual substance, viewers would be excused for not knowing if they were watching coverage of the actual convention, or a Daily Show-style parody thereof.

Never mind bread and circuses: From beginning to end, the RNC felt more like a rock concert. The crowd could have just as easily been gathered for a Rolling Stones or Taylor Swift show. Attendees added to the carnival atmosphere by wearing cowboy hats, red-white-and-blue jackets and other ridiculous outfits.
The Republican speakers, meanwhile, stoked the crowd with infantile slogans, empty rhetoric and outright lies.
The convention’s theme, “We Built It,” was a play on President Obama’s supposed insinuation that early American business owners and entrepreneurs did not, in fact, build their businesses on their own. Except, that is not what he actually said. Likewise, vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan gave a highly misleading account in which he blamed Obama for the shut-down of a GM factory in his Wisconsin hometown that actually closed during George W. Bush’s presidency. Oh yes—and aging actor Clint Eastwood spent about 12 minutes talking to an empty chair. So much for “liberal” Hollywood.
Welcome to the state of political discourse in the twenty-first century. And I am not merely picking on the Republicans here. I fully expect next week’s Democratic Convention in North Carolina to be just as abysmally insipid.
These conventions are little more than pep-rallies for the parties’ respective presidential nominees. There is little discussion of policy, legislative proposals, or substantive dialogue about the pertinent issues of our time. Instead, speakers and candidates offer cheap, mind-numbing clichés about “The Economy,” “Jobs,” and crowd-pleasing phrases like, “Throw the bums out!” and “Time to turn the page.” And the crowd cheers and howls like a bunch of inebriated football fans at the Super Bowl. Politics and entertainment have now merged.

(At times, the audience would even applaud rhetoric, such as Eastwood’s incongruous though nonetheless welcome criticism of the Afghanistan war, completely at odds with their own party. Eastwood’s remarks left the impression Romney supports a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan, when in fact, he has wholeheartedly embraced the war.)  
Karl Marx was right: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Witness the thorough degradation of our political culture. Where once politicians spoke of policies, issues and inspired civic leadership, they now speak in carefully crafted, nine second sound bytes written by public relations experts. These soundbytes are designed for television and those with short attention spans.
A 2004 study in the Princeton Review of the vocabulary of recent presidential candidates highlights politicians’ steady and deliberate pandering to those with low or limited vocabularies. During the 1992 presidential debates, Bill Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade reading level, while George H. W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level. The same trend continued in the 2000 election, with George W. Bush speaking at a sixth-grade level like his father, and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level.
Contrast those numbers with the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 wherein both men spoke at about a tenth-grade reading level. And going back even further to the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates (widely regarded as the pinnacle of U.S. political discourse), both candidates spoke at the educational level of a high-school graduate (which, of course, connoted a far higher degree of educational achievement than it does today). Indeed, one shudders to think what Americans of the Lincoln-Douglas era would think today of Sarah Palin’s routine mangling of the English language, and her inability to correctly pronounce the word, “repudiate.”
This blatant display of anti-intellectualism and pandering to voters’ limited vocabulary is all part of the process by which candidates market themselves like any other commercial product.
Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President, an account of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, remains the definitive account of the modern day marriage of advertisers and politicians. McGinniss tagged along with Nixon’s “mad men” campaign staff, all of whom had previously worked on commercials for Coca-Cola, Nike, Ford and other brand-name products. “It is not surprising…that politicians and advertising men should have discovered one another,” McGinniss writes. “And once they recognized that the citizen did not so much vote for a candidate as make a psychological purchase of him, not surprising that they began to work together.”
The sad, scary truth is, American voters no longer vote for political candidates based on their knowledge, expertise, experience or positions on the issues. They vote based on how the candidate makes them feel. With the advent of television, a medium built entirely around images, this process of making a “psychological purchase” has only become more entrenched. Presidents, like celebrities, have become brands.

Case in point, Advertising Age magazine awarded Barack Obama as “Advertiser of the Year,” based on his 2008 landslide campaign. Obama beat out more traditional brand-name products like Verizon and Apple. Thus the merging of politics and entertainment is nearly complete.
“At the speed of light,” wrote Marshall McLuhan prophetically, “policies and political parties yield place to charismatic images.”
So, there you have it. The economy remains stagnant, citizens are struggling, climate-change is wreaking havoc on the southwest and food crops, and war with Iran may be literally around the corner, and GOP candidates and supporters want to hold childish, imaginary conversations with an empty chair.

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