|Vol I no. 2 November 12, 2002|
An Appetite for the Real Thing
Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. Premeditations and Premonitions appears periodically in The Common Good Network.
Election Day, November 5, 2002, was a big day for George Bush. He put himself at risk to translate his personal popularity among his voter base into turnout and votes for the candidates he supported. He wasn't simply basking in safe waters -- he waded into some close races where the tide might have run in the other direction, leaving him wet, cold and looking ridiculous. He took risks and the risks worked.
In fact, to overstate only slightly, his strategists scored big by promoting the risks as the whole point. In a culture starved for authenticity branded as "reality," this stuff works. Bold moves and tough talk are far more important than ideas, and complex ideas are off the graph. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Odds are -- because a majority of Americans, when polled, support what we'll call, as a polite fiction, "liberal" policies -- that you are generally inclined against the Bush agenda. You're pro- choice, you're concerned when Constitutional rights are suspended, you don't agree that environmental rules should be written by corporate lobbyists, you oppose tax cuts that benefit the wealthy at the expense of your favorite social programs, you don't want health care policy dictated by industry, you doubt the wisdom of privatizing social security, you're ticked off that CEOs take personal millions out of failing corporations, leaving workers without pensions and stockholders holding the bag, and you have misgivings about the war on terrorism.
But you're different from most of those others, because you vote. That's a safe guess on my part -- you've read this far. I'm also willing to bet that you read the front page of the newspaper and the op ed page too, and the Sunday thumb-suckers in that gray section that most people use only when they have some housepainting to do.
For most Americans, however, politics is a spectator sport that can't hold a candle to the ball games. People who can debate the nuances of a proposed player trade, citing statistics from memory and recalling specific examples, with dates, of comparative player performance, fascinate and bore me. They fascinate me because I'm in genuine awe of the intelligence they exhibit in mastering this level of detail; and they bore me because the subject is one I've never engaged. I have the same reaction to conversations about real estate and fashions, when I'm with people who know what they're talking about, and care.
It's humbling to acknowledge that I must sound exactly the same when they hear me rant about political issues. Less than 40 percent of voting age Americans went to the polls that Tuesday. The historic results were thus effected by something like 20 percent of the most committed political activists. Another 18-19 percent were disappointed, but over 60 percent of the adult American population were doing something else that day.
Should we castigate them for shunning their civic duty, and giving the game to the ideologues? I think not. To say that politics is a spectator sport is not a value judgment. I think we give this silent majority the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge they made a rational choice.
Consider: First, they like George Bush. From what we can see of him, he's a likeable man, and most Americans polled agree. Never mind the fact that "what we can see of him" is the operative phrase, in a world of image management.
Second, they trust George Bush. Most people weren't sure at first. But in a time of national trauma, he availed himself of the bipartisan support that was reflexively offered, activated a professional team who acted decisively, and meanwhile served adequately or better as the focus of America's sentiments of the moment, whether grief, anger or resolution. The fact that the decisive actions were ineffective to their stated purpose, and might have been counterproductive, is relevant only to historians and perhaps some of that 18-19 percent who voted Democratic.
Third, while he can obviously be credited for what he says and does in public, for most people it's hard to blame him for what he omits. Most people understand that no one can do everything and be everywhere. Criticisms based on what he should have done -- a staple of political opposition -- are generally irrelevant. Most incumbents benefit from this fact of life, and it protected George Bush even when his absence at a critical time was so conspicuous that Rudy Giuliani became America's default Winston Churchill.
Fourth, the Big Things that the Democratic leadership believed would inspire an anti-Bush vote -- the failing economy, the prospects of war, international isolation, corporate corruption -- are generally not the kinds of things that people hold politicians accountable for. For most people, these events in our lives are like earthquakes and hurricanes, unconnected with any human agency. Wars happen, economies soften. Who would have done better? Al Gore?
Finally, I believe, the ultimate secret of today's Republicans is that they are willing to offend with bold actions, often actions insupportable by logic or ethics. I think their strategy speaks to a public appetite, whetted in an age of virtual values, for the Real Thing.
This approach combines a simplified style of direct action without concern for detailed justification -- preferably with a John Wayne/Ronald Reagan swagger -- which satisfies your supporters; and a calculus that simply ignores your hard-core political opponents, and often even refuses to reply to their arguments, so long as they don't somehow achieve breakthrough into the mainstream of general awareness, where they might be able to influence public opinion.
I'll use this space to develop this thesis over time, but suffice it now to say that mine is not a novel idea, and there will be plenty of food for thought. In a recent essay, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes, "When Brecht, on the way from his home to his theatre in July 1953, passed the column of Soviet tanks, rolling toward the Stalinallee to crush the workers' rebellion, he waved at them and wrote in his diary later that day that, at that moment, he (never a party member) was tempted for the first time in his life to join the Communist Party." Zizek cites this as an example of "the key feature of the twentieth century: the 'passion for the Real'...in contrast to the nineteenth century of utopian or 'scientific' projects and ideals."
The popularity of the thugs in the hit made-for-TV drama, "The Sopranos" (and before that, the "epic" film, "The Godfather") -- doesn't this suggest the compelling attraction of people who are willing to do something, even if (especially if?) their assertiveness puts them outside the protection of the law and society at large?
Thus, the personal risk taken by George Bush in the run-up to Nov. 5 was a bigger story than any individual campaign issue. Even though polls show that a Bush visit elevates local GOP polls for only a few days, after which the numbers return to normal, the timing was such that the bounce peaked on Tuesday.
That story supplied fodder for reporters, pundits, and (most importantly) call-in radio show hosts. It energized Republican activists to work that final weekend, and to vote on Election Day. And it depressed -- literally and numerically -- voters on the other side.
Meanwhile the overwhelming majority were incidentally amused by the short animated version of the story, as it filtered through their other amusements. And they left the decision to those relatively few who cared one way or the other.
So, from their standpoint, the non-voters made a rational choice when they decided to leave well enough alone. Who are they, after all -- and who are you? -- to try to tell the experts how they should run things? Sit back, take a load off, enjoy the game.
In weeks to come I'll explore some of the aspects implicated in these paragraphs. In particular, the role of the media in an increasingly "virtual" society, the influence of our appetite for the Real Thing, and a civic response to the decline of democracy through attrition. I'm interested in your opinions.