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New York Daily News

 

The presidential soap opera is degrading our political process

September 07, 2008

By Fred Siegel

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Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Barack Obama. The John Edwards soap opera of first his wife's illness and then his infidelity. The wildly hyped faceoff between the Obamas and the Clintons which never came to pass. The Sarah Palin saga. All have become grist for the infotainment gossip mills, and it's endangering our politics.

The rise of 24-hour cable news and the movement of TV shows such as "Access Hollywood" and "Entertainment Tonight," and celebrity magazines such as People and US into politics means that the old 1960s slogan that "the personal is political" has become frighteningly true. For those who post their private and public lives on Facebook and MySpace, the separation between the private and public spheres, long the underpinning of modern liberal societies, has been breached.

Our political culture, which depends on a public life of relatively reasoned debate, has been overtaken and undermined by our celebrity-mad popular culture - which, by focusing on the private lives of public figures, turns politicians into personalities.

There has always been an element of entertainment in our political campaigns. Nineteenth-century elections featured torchlight parades, barbecues and barbed speeches. Still, spectacles came only occasionally, and in the interim the often lengthy speeches were reprinted in the local papers and widely read.

Today politics as entertainment is uninterrupted and interminable. In the '80s, "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group" were the first TV talk shows to attract an audience by encouraging discussion to degenerate into the now familiar format of dueling denunciations. Now, comedy shows like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" provide virtually the only "news" to many of our college students and twentysomethings who would no more scan a serious speech than regularly read a newspaper.

The upshot has been that rather than push voters to rise to the occasion by grappling with sometimes difficult and unfamiliar issues, politics has often been reduced to the personal foibles we can all relate to without effort. The effect is to allow the most breathtaking hypocrisy to pass unaccounted for. Liberals who for 40 years have insisted that a career is no impediment to being a good mother have, in the face of the Palin candidacy, done a 180 on the subject. Similarly, conservatives who for 40 years have decried the rise of premarital sex and teen pregnancy now, in the case of Sarah Palin's daughter, minimize it as a minor matter. Where is the widely read or viewed political forum where these reversals can be reasonably discussed?

Before Palin's personal story attracted critical attention, John McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis insisted that the campaign boiled down to biography and experience. With the inexperienced Palin nominated for vice president, Davis then stole a page from the Obama playbook and demanded a focus on the quality of Palin's judgments. For their part, the Obama-ites shifted smoothly in the reverse direction regarding Palin. They now insist that experience and not judgment is the key quality a candidate needs.

These are the kinds of mindless reversals that happen when Oprahfication—the elevation of mushy narrative nonsense over all else—carries the day.

In our political soap opera, Hillary Clinton has (temporarily) become a Republican hero. This while Barack Obama, a man straight out of the Chicago machine who never met an Illinois hack he found reason to criticize, was able to present himself, thanks in part to Britney Spears' set designer, as a man from Mount Olympus when delivering his acceptance speech. Could The Onion ask for more?

The most important presidential race in a generation - one that in its early stages promised thoughtful, serious debate—has devolved into a campaign in which one daytime TV moment has succeeded the next. It has gone from a contest too important to be decided on the basis of whether you'd rather have a beer with a Republican or a glass of wine with a Democrat into our current unhappy state, in which the stakes are now apparently too high for either party to have principles.

At every turn, emotional resonance has replaced even the semblance of reasoned argument.

Americans generally prefer governors to sitting senators for their President. But then, traditionally we were more concerned with how an individual had governed rather than their personal profiles. The success of sitting senators in this contest has left us with two sets of personalities, two brands each representing a range of contradictory interests which need not be reconciled, even rhetorically, in a celebrity-driven election.

Original Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2008/09/07/2008-09-07_the_presidential_soap_opera_is_degrading.html

 

 
 
 

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