Big Mac politics on stage
Don’t do it. Don’t tune in to this year’s political conventions.
For two decades, Americans have been wising up and increasingly tuning out those quadrennial made-for-television pageants that pass for participatory democracy. In 1976, roughly 22 million people watched Jimmy Carter receive his party’s nomination. By contrast, four years ago, only 16 million viewers enjoyed the high jinks at the GOP convention. Over the years, declining interest has persuaded broadcast networks to scale back their coverage, and I think a lot of us suspect we didn’t miss much.
But this year, thanks to heightened interest in the presidential campaign, both broadcast and cable news networks are bumping up their coverage. And starting today, it’s going to be extra hard to resist the allure of all that elaborately conceived stagecraft.
My revulsion for the conventions doesn’t stem simply from disdain for partisan politics. Nor am I suggesting that Americans ignore the substance of politics. But to my mind, conventions are emblematic of everything that’s wrong with American culture. For all our belief in freedom, which by definition breeds unpredictability, and our pride in our cultural dynamism, U.S. culture is becoming ever more self-conscious and scripted.
For a minute or two, the advent of reality TV seemed like a corrective to our canned popular culture. But then we learned that even those minor celebrity guinea pigs were being poked and prodded so they’d react in predictable ways.
Newfangled audio and video technology also has been heralded as ushering in a new era of wild and woolly spontaneity. But the YouTube-ization of politics has only made candidates all the more controlled and scripted, for fear that someone is watching.
And for all the intimacy that online social networking is supposed to restore to our atomized lives, networks such as Facebook actually encourage the creation of self-conscious and idealized personas that may or may not have anything to do with a person’s real personality.
We’ve turned into a society of poseurs, and our political conventions have become something akin to the “walk off” in Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander,” in which dueling models (candidates) project their signature “looks.”
As long ago as 1961, social critic Daniel Boorstin argued in his book, “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America,” that the U.S. was threatened by the “menace of unreality.” He insisted that Americans were living in an “age of contrivance” in which manufactured illusions had become all too powerful. Our civic and cultural lives, he said, were full of “pseudo-events” populated by “pseudo-people” whose identities were entirely scripted and staged. He wrote this, I remind you, when television was young and well before the advent of the digital age.
The hegemony of mass popular culture clearly made matters worse. Now we swim in countless images that marketers, producers and political strategists rain down on us. Our children are socialized by these images. They internalize and mimic their themes and tropes. The relentless posing, posturing and spinning invades our collective consciousness.
More than a decade ago, I ran two after-school programs for second-graders in Los Angeles County. One class was made up of immigrants or the children of immigrants, while the other was all kids born to U.S.-born parents. At the end of each semester, we produced a video of a skit that each class wrote. What astonished me was the children’s divergent attitude toward the camera. The immigrant children tended to speak to the camera as they would have to a person, but the more Americanized children invariably put on airs by adopting deeper television anchor-style voices or nodding their heads to indicate seriousness in the way television reporters often do. Only 7 years old and they were ready for their close-up.
Ultimately, what this all leads to is the death of spontaneity, the squandering of freedom. It’s part of what sociologist George Ritzer calls the “McDonaldization of society,” or “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate” all aspects of our lives. The convenience and predictability that fast food delivers leads us to desire convenient and predictable lives. Just as we can rest assured that a Big Mac will taste the same whether we eat it in California, Pennsylvania or Budapest, we’ve come to want the other parts of our lives to be as routine and controlled.
We get what we wish for in the utterly predictable political conventions. Pundits and reporters will do their best over the next two weeks to try to scare up some exciting, unpredictable story lines in Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul. But let’s face it, barring the terrible or the miraculous, both conclaves will be as exciting, original and as good for you as a Big Mac.