Is It Television?

I’m told the health care summit turned out to be mostly political theater, as expected. Sometimes I wonder if mass media itself is part of the problem. If politics were an ecosystem, it would seem the introduction of mass media into the environment has given us a species of politicians who can’t do anything else but political theater.

There has always been plenty of corruption and bamboozling in Washington, but in generations past the corrupt bamboozlers were capable of running a government and passing legislation that made a real difference in people’s lives. Now I look at people like John Boehner and Eric Cantor, and wonder, what the hell do you do, exactly? Because it seems their only real function is going through the motions for the cameras; they aren’t real senators, but just play the role on TeeVee.

The question is, is this new species the wave of the future, or have congressional Republicans (and some conservative Democrats) marched into an evolutionary cul de sac, too over-specialized to adapt to changing conditions? And I do think the way to defeat them is not to attack them individually and directly, but to change the conditions that sustain them. Maybe I’ll address that some other time.

At Slate, Timothy Noah has an interesting observation — the ruling class doesn’t fear the peasants enough.

Starting late in the 19th century and ending late in the 20th, a hugely important engine of social progress was fear on the part of the nation’s leaders that economic inequality, if it were allowed to become too severe, would lead to class warfare and maybe the radical overthrow of the U.S. government. That’s why Andrew Carnegie founded his libraries; it’s why the states ratified the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, creating the modern progressive income tax; it’s why Franklin Roosevelt created the New Deal (“The failure of Republican leaders to solve our troubles,” Roosevelt said when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1932, “may degenerate into unreasoning radicalism”); it’s why Harvard President James Bryant Conant moved Harvard to a merit-based system of admissions subsequently adopted by other universities; and it’s why every Republican president from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan pursued domestic economic and social policies only somewhat less liberal than those favored by Democrats.

Of course, it was Reagan who stopped that trend, and beginning in the 1980s income inequality has grown.

But instead of fearing radicalism fueled by income inequality, today’s “conservatives” thrive on it. Instead of dealing with the issues that are causing people to be angry, conservatives just fan the flames to make people more angry, hoping to harness that anger into political power. And it’s worked for them pretty well, so far. But is it sustainable, or will it all flame back into their faces someday?

See also: Paul Krugman, “
Afflicting the Afflicted.”