Why is American politics so savage? Look to TV

A Pew Research Center survey released last week showed that only 15 percent of respondents felt optimistic about this election. Far more chose descriptions such as “frustrated” or “disgusted."

People line up outside a ‘House of Cards’ marketing campaign in Greenville, South Carolina (photo credit: REUTERS)
People line up outside a ‘House of Cards’ marketing campaign in Greenville, South Carolina
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the “Morning After” episode of HBO series Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays the president of the United States, speaks to a symposium on race. However, the president and her staff soon realize that all the panel members are white. Solution? Round up as many black staffers as they can find to “diversify” the event.
This kind of glorified cynical hucksterism may get laughs on television, but it also drives public perception of politics; diversity is a joke. Diversity for diversity’s sake is a joke. It’s all a joke – on the public. The political elites know the voters are morons and can be fooled. Not enough diversity? Find a few low-level black staffers and voila, now the event is diverse.
Art definitely does imitate life when it comes to politics and its depiction in mass media. If you want to know why so many are disgusted and frustrated with the current US presidential race, just watch some of the movies and television series about politics from the past 20 years.
A Pew Research Center survey released last week showed that only 15 percent of respondents felt optimistic about this election. Far more chose descriptions such as “frustrated” (57%) or “disgusted” (55%). An Associated Press- NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 90% of Americans lack confidence in the political system.
Only 14% said Democrats are responsive to the “rank and file” voters, and only 8% thought Republicans were. Fifty- five percent of the public feels “helpless.”
Since the mid-1990s most movies and television shows about politics have been used to condition the public to accept its helpless position of irrelevance and construct a wall of excuses around the cynical political class that has grown up. Mass media has been used to make political manipulations seem positive and encourage people to believe that the more corrupt and insincere a politician is, the “better” at their profession they are.
Let’s go back to Dave, the 1993 movie about a president who dies unexpectedly and whose double gets to become him for a brief time. The “average Joe” who becomes president uses common sense approaches to “make Washington work.” The conclusion is that if only commoners could take over Washington then budgets would be balanced, but the message is that obviously commoners can’t do that, so too bad.
Then there was The American President in 1995. Ostensibly a love story about a widowed US president and a single woman, it revolves around Washington horse-trading and the supposed need of a president to sacrifice his values to win reelection. He only heroically overcomes his cynical needs toward the end of the film in order to beat the Republican candidates, who are portrayed as two-dimensional, conservative morons.
In 1998 the public had to suffer through Primary Colors (1998), in which John Travolta plays an unnamed Bill Clinton as a good-hearted politician with moral and ethical flaws. His idealistic staffer is drawn into his lies, and learns the “truth” about politics: it’s all focus groups, lies and some sex with young women.
Wag the Dog (1997) took Clintonian “focus group” politics to the extreme, showing how the US could actually launch a war while misleading the American people.
Bulworth (1998) attempted to show what other films such as The Candidate (1972) had asserted, namely that if only a politician would be brutally honest because he doesn’t want to win, then the “real liberal” politics would emerge. Sort of a Bernie Sanders moment.
Since 2000 films have navigated this same course, between legitimizing and glorifying outright corruption and cynical manipulation, and granting political trickery a veneer of decency as long as it’s employed by “truly liberal” politicians. Ides of March in 2011 thus bears a striking resemblance to Primary Colors, and The Contender (2000) feels a lot like The American President.
Between these films we had to witness In the Loop, a British film that supposedly shows one lone “good” politician who opposes intervention in Iraq, contrasted with the rest of the US and British political class who are all cynical war-mongers who use leaks and manipulation to screw their opponents.
Television series such as West Wing (1999-2006), House of Cards (2013-present), Veep (2012-present) and Scandal (2012-present) have all hammered home the essential points that politics is about manipulation, cynicism, lies and corruption. Voters are morons. Political winners are those who can lie the most and mislead the best. Political opponents are tarred and feathered, dirt is dug up on them, and they are slandered until they break. Sometimes they are murdered.
Most of all these series glorify politicians who mock voters and cement the idea that total manipulation is to be expected and even rewarded.
Although most films and TV series about politics are about Democrats as main characters – because Hollywood and mass media are generally, if not entirely, scornful of Republicans – the Democrats that are depicted generally are portrayed as entirely disingenuous about the things they claim to “believe.” They pay lip service to racism or women’s issues not because they care, but because they want votes. They would trade their supposed values, such as being pro-choice, to get votes as well. Everything is for sale.
The public and politicians have taken this mass media message to heart. Notice that neither US candidate wants to discuss the anger sweeping America over police killings of African-American men. Why? Because focus groups have told them this is an issue “you won’t win on.” If Hillary Clinton gives an aggressive speech about Black Lives Matter it will “alienate whites.” So she doesn’t. Donald Trump doesn’t touch the subject deeply either.
Foreign policy issues, such as America’s forever-war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year, aren’t “sexy” issues, so no need to discuss them. Never before in history have American voters been presented with two candidates who have spoken so little about issues that matter to voters, or taken their concerns less seriously. This is entirely because the candidates have become what is depicted in media. They could be characters on film or TV. In fact Scandal even introduced a Donald Trump-like candidate. But where does Trump the media creation end and Trump the reality begin, Where’s the line between Clinton the media personality and Clinton the person? Both of these candidates are products of the past two decades, products of the mass media, products of what Americans have been taught to expect in their candidates.
Americans have seen the movie already. They know that never before in history has Washington taken them for granted more or felt so much contempt for them.
The contempt is absolute – there is no hint in American politics that the candidates care one iota for what is happening to the vast majority of the people. If the people can be fooled with cheap tricks like adopting a southern accent or pretending to care about Jesus at a church, then the cheap tricks should be used.
Across the pond in Europe there is a rising feeling that the same contagion has infected politicians. They are seen as distant from the public, uncaring about average people. This is especially true of EU bureaucrats and elites.
Eventually this unhealthy media-driven glorification of the politics of cynicism and lies, where perception is better than reality, words are worth more than actions, will lead to chaos. When masses of people are disillusioned and angry, frustrated and scared – as they say they are – then political danger can emerge. Taking voters for granted and laughing at them and mocking them behind closed doors, indeed even mocking them to their faces, can be dangerous for Western democracy in general.
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