America’s Most Popular Export: Demagoguery and the Political Circus

I was reading the usual torrent of news that flows my way via fifteen-plus hours online per day, trying to parse some meaning from the noise. With so much signal, it can take a while for general trends to emerge; today I ran across what struck me strongly as signal.

The first hit was reading about the overreaction to Hurricane Irene in the popular press and the rising tide of criticism about similar overreaction by government officials. This is nothing new, of course. As a resident of the Gulf Coast, I grew up hearing people complain about evacuation orders. People complain when they are not issued soon enough, and they complain when they are issued; after the hurricane, they inevitably judge post-facto the decision to evacuate or not, criticizing with the benefit of hindsight. With such a mess of complaining, it would seem that there could be no winner in such a situation. Everyone is angry, and no one makes perfect decisions.

At the individual level it is quite difficult to find any benefit apart from venting frustration; at a larger level, though, two groups benefit almost invariably by this cycle of endless complaining: the media and political opponents of the decision-makers. If you make a poor decision in the heat of command, prepare for your political opponents to make hay with it as the next election approaches. Meanwhile, expect that the media will continue to rake in advertising revenue at every stage of the game, escalating the situation where expedient for the purposes of viewership.

Hurricane Katrina was an interesting turning point in terms of national attention. Back when Hurricane Andrew crushed Florida and the rest of the Gulf Coast, there was plenty of attention, but it was more the standard human-interest fare: television movies and building codes grew out of the disaster, and everyone moved on to the 1994 Republican Contract with America. Political capital was exchanged, people moved on, and the national news moved elsewhere.

In the next decade, two events showed the world the politics of which America was truly capable: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, the news media did famously good business; in both cases, politicians played the blame game to make incredible political capital. These were hardly isolated incidents of the confluence of national attention and political success. It stands to reason that such times are opportunities for the media as well as politicians. What happens, then, when there are no hurricanes, no terrorist attacks, or at least none in the populous areas of the US homeland?

This would seem to be an insoluble problem – no hay to be made when the field lies empty. This difficulty, though, has been solved by a clever alignment of media and politics. There is no conspiracy here, though – just a happy coincidence. Happy, that is, for news networks and political parties; depressing and destructive for citizens and democratic government.

What is the magical solution? When there are no disasters, no catastrophes, no battles from which to emerge victorious, how do you get attention? You invent a battle, invite the press, and watch your political capital skyrocket. By polarizing the electorate around an issue, then tying it to any number of other issues in a platform based around some simple theme, one can generate both news and campaign fundraising dollars. No need to wait for a war to mount your charger – just hop on and run over whoever gets in the way. The cavalry is sure to follow.

We in America have perfected the news without substance, the anger without cause, and the grass-roots growing from the top down. The aforementioned Contract with America is one example. We call it “Culture War,” a truly perfect term. What gets more 200 point headlines than a war? A culture war, a war where we are all soldiers because we are told that we are. This has been a revolution of politics in my lifetime. Alignment based on posturing as “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice” and a host of similar issues has allowed the politicians to inflate their own political currency with zero backing, while the media on both sides foments and then editorializes. O’Reilly or Olberman? Limbaugh or Maddow?

This is a time of demagogues, to be sure, and the US has led the charge. What I read today, though, helped to crystallize the notion for me that demagoguery and baseless political posturing are not just irritating consequences of the American public’s intellectual laziness. They are much more than that.

They are, in fact, marketable products. Quite valuable ones, really, beneficial for the media as well as politicians. Where is that marketing being directed? Where is it effecting change? Who is adopting these measures? The UK.

I happened to see two articles in the Guardian today. One about a very muscly Jesus, and the other about anti-abortion activists. America is succeeding in exporting at least one product in the twenty-first century: demagoguery and the associated loss of intelligent citizenship.

I just can’t wait to see what happens next. >_>

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One Response to “America’s Most Popular Export: Demagoguery and the Political Circus”

  1. Irvin Haigh Says:

    “Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar.” ~ Theodor Adorno

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