Watching the train wreck of a debate last Thursday night, I was struck with a brief moment of happiness. This, I thought, is the moment where America wakes up and sees our political system for what it is: a grand television spectacle of well-lit, well-rehearsed, and a well-run-dry-of-ideas-group of circus clowns whooping up a crowd for the sheer joy of seeing their numbers improve.
After all, it’s only a game now, right? Donald Trump seems to think so. He made a comment the next morning on Today calling Republican Presidential candidates his “fellow contestants.” TV Guide (which is still, for some reason, a thing), gave us “10 Reasons the GOP Debate Was Great Television.” Even Frank Bruni of The New York Times said the same thing. Bruni also followed up by saying the debate was “even better politics.”
Except, of course, it wasn’t. Unless we agree that politics is nothing more than a new sort of entertainment industry in American society.
Even though I’m routinely told that the future of the country desperately depends on the one person who sits at the head of the Executive Branch, it’s no secret that I don’t take presidential politics seriously. The funny thing is, no matter who has been in the Oval Office, the country hasn’t yet slid off the face of the Earth. Sure, we’ve slid to the right — and quite a bit to the authoritarian right — but I hardly doubt that’s been the fault of any particular president.
But while it’s interesting that at least some members of the political class take their politics very, very seriously (perhaps because they are in the minority of people for whom who gets elected affects their career paths or tax rates), what is consistently amazing is the number of people who take the GOP candidates seriously in any form. For the most part, the GOP debate was endless noise on a number of dead ideas. Meanwhile the few bright moments in the debate were glossed over or missed.
For instance, one such moment came from Marco Rubio. He said, “This country is facing an economy that has been radically transformed. You know, the largest retailer in the country and the world today, Amazon, doesn’t even own a single store? And these changes have been disruptive. They have changed people’s lives. The jobs that once sustained our middle class, they either don’t pay enough or they are gone, and we need someone that understands that as our nominee.”
Had Rubio said “illegal immigrants” instead of “Amazon,” there might have been a furious reaction from pundits on the “left.” Instead, since he just hinted at the idea that the internet hasn’t been good for America’s economy, the story became whether or not he was right that Amazon is the largest retailer in the world, not whether their “disruption” of American retail has been a positive or negative for the working and middle class. And that’s another part of where politics has taken a turn for the worse: our focus on ensuring candidates have their “facts” right. By obsessing over facts, we’ve completely lost sight of the notion that facts are only part of the story.
Of course, the debate stage might not be the place for an idea like that to get a full and clear hearing. Instead, we got Donald Trump backing up his rampant misogyny by vowing to fight “political correctness” — that age-old bugaboo for the Republican Party. But even this part of the debate — taken with a few others — reveals another problem in American politics, at least in the GOP. They have serious issues with cognitive dissonance, and no one seems to be able to call them out on it.
So, even as Trump decried political correctness, Ohio Gov. John Kasich called the (now resolved) issue of same-sex marriage one that was “planted to divide us.” Funny, that is exactly what same-sex marriage, and abortion, and other cultural and identity politics ideas were meant to do when the right-wing started using them in the 1970s as a way to wedge the working-class vote and swing the country to the right. That Kasich could now claim those issues as possibly dividing the GOP is stunning. But you probably won’t get any commentary on that from the “real” political pundits who write for the “serious” political press.
Why? Because they still have to maintain that what they’re doing is somehow more serious than entertainment.
At the end of the day, national politics has to look enough like entertainment in order to draw people in and legitimize it, but not so much that people lose faith that it still guides their every waking moment. If that sounds like an unsustainable program, well it hopefully is.