“I read the newspaper avidly,” said British politician Aneurin Bevan. ”It is my one form of continuous fiction.”
This has been the election season in a nutshell. I've laughed. I've cried. I've done both simultaneously. I've suffered nervous breakdowns. I've thrown things at the television.
Is this really how the process works now?
No, the 2012 primary has been far too much fun. Newt Gingrich is wandering around yelling at the press, embracing the word “grandiose” by doing everything short of tattooing it on his chest, and promising everyone bases on the moon. Herman Cain just endorsed him — two class clowns, reunited, for anyone worried that Gingrich’s campaign was not enough of a joke.
His personal numbers may have suffered, but the ratings have never been higher.
It's not just the debate audiences, whose idea of decorum is to chant loudly, boo gay servicemen and demand that the indigent and ill be tossed to the curb.
It's the rest of us.
This is fun to watch. When NBC tried to get the Florida debate audience to quiet down, everyone erupted indignantly. What? And give up show biz?
But most of the problems of the current system stem from the idea that a GOP primary debate should be anything resembling a fun evening.
Sure, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were a form of entertainment, but that was in an era when other forms of entertainment included contracting polio and going to plays to be assassinated.
But in recent years, the election has turned into a reality television show of the worst sort. The contenders squabble on and off-camera. It's edited into a series of dramatic sound bites. If we could turn away for a second, erect a barrier to entry, there might be room for substantive debate. But that’d be bad for the ratings.
2008 was going to be dramatic, under any circumstances. The floodgates opened on both sides. Obvious choices were discarded. Underdogs barked.
But now we expect the same from 2012, even though we have gone about eliminating contestants in the same demographic order generally reserved for 1980s horror movies. The final four is one Rags-To-Rankings story, one Squeaky-Voiced Old Man, one Guy We Always Knew Would Make The Finals, and one Drama Machine who keeps castigating the moderators.
Dirty secrets emerge from closets. Sex! Money! Ex-wives! Can’t afford a proctologist? Just run for president. The process has the same effect.
The reality TV impulse is strong — the idea that there is merit in being the loudest, that you ought to keep the Drama Queen in the show as long as possible because it makes watching more fun. After all these years of “Survivor,” we know what makes a good show. And Newt Gingrich is Omarosa and Richard Hatch and Speidi and Snooki rolled into one.
I once heard Gordon Wood observe that a low voter turnout is actually a sign of health in a democracy. If you don't feel compelled to tune in and turn up, it means that the system is safe. The world will not end if your candidate fails to make it into office. Not everything hinges on who wins or loses. It’s good if we don’t feel compelled to pay attention.
Besides, the things you have to do these days to get ratings.
And ratings have been steadily climbing. Even the relatively unprepossessing Florida debate on NBC, which I compared unfavorably to watching grass grow, attracted 6 million viewers. That puts it in range of “Jersey Shore.”
The race has been run as though it’s constantly sweeps week.
It’s a new genre: Reality Politics, where Reality is as much in scare quotes as it always is. It’s, at best, infotainment. At worst, it’s a reality TV show whose tired, beleaguered-looking contestants are woefully undercompensated.
Colorful contestants linger longer. It’s on 24/7. It’s like the Hunger Games, except that you actually felt sorry for some of those contestants.
Tim Pawlenty goes home the first round because he refused to say to Mitt Romney's face mean things that he had said about Mitt Romney behind his back. Generally, that's an indication you were raised right. In politics, as in reality television, it’s a liability.
The two increasingly overlap.
“Are you not entertained?” Gingrich bellows.
I am. I wish I weren’t. The process is now designed so that people who would change the channel during boring and in-depth discussions of policy are never given the opportunity. “Which of your wives would be the best first lady?” the moderators ask. “Let’s all talk about Our Favorite Events From the 1990s. Who loves Reagan most?”
I want to be bored.
“Don’t worry,” someone says. “They’ll nominate Romney soon enough.”
Maybe so. This is one reality TV show that needs to go off the air.