Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent of National Review.
Call today’s politics whatever you like, but it isn’t boring. I can hear the defenses of “Rock the Vote”: That’s unfair! Politics and entertainment have long overlapped — even Richard M. Nixon was on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in 1968 saying “Sock it to me?”
But there’s a difference between politicians trying to be entertaining and politicians seeing their role as primarily being an entertainer. Here’s where “Rock the Vote” comes in. The organization by that name, founded in 1990 by a music industry executive to combat censorship of song lyrics, teamed up with MTV ahead of the 1990 midterms to get out the youth vote. But the campaign didn’t fully kick into gear until two years later, with the goal of persuading young voters to take a break from obsessing over Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men and actually care about voting for Bill Clinton.
Oh, those last three words weren’t explicit, but it wasn’t hard to discern MTV’s preference among the presidential options of the 68-year-old World War II vet incumbent, the nutty billionaire Texan with the charts, and the cool guy in dark sunglasses who played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show.”
The advantage of being a charismatic or entertaining personality in politics doesn’t mean the purpose of politics and government is to entertain. There’s plenty of deliberate entertainment to do that. Pro sports, superhero movies, prestige TV, swords-and-sorcery cable shows, the Kardashians — whatever it is that amuses or enthralls you is widely on offer, separate from the halls of Congress and state capitols.
The mind-set, values and incentive structure of the entertainment industry have colonized the world of politics and government over the past three decades, and both worlds are worse off for it.
The odd thing is that when I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I thought politics was boring, or at least perceived that others deemed it boring. Being interested in what elected leaders were debating and doing was considered the opposite of cool; only nerds cared about it (admittedly, I was nerd-qualified for lots of other reasons).
On paper, I shouldn’t be denouncing the intersection of politics and entertainment. Political humor was my gateway drug to the rest of the political world: Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush impressions and Dennis Miller’s snarky “Weekend Update” jokes on “Saturday Night Live”; Johnny Carson and Jay Leno monologues; “Doonesbury,” “Bloom County” and editorial cartoons.
Political humor always dwelled in this nether region between real politics and mainstream entertainment, with a bit of inadvertent impetus toward political education — to get the jokes, you had to understand what was being joked about.
In a vivid example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, one “Rock the Vote” public service announcement in 1990 featured Madonna rapping, “If you don’t vote, you’re gonna get a spanking.” Never mind that some segment of the target audience might have paid good money to get spanked by Madonna. If your ad campaign requires pop culture’s preeminent sex symbol to make saucy allusions to S&M to persuade people to take their civic duty seriously, you’re not taking your civic duty seriously.
A few years later, John F. Kennedy Jr. came along with George magazine, “a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core,” giving political figures (Gerald Ford, Madeleine Albright, Pat Schroeder) the Hollywood treatment — when it wasn’t doing the same for actual celebrities (Kate Moss, George Clooney, Madonna — her again). Almost every page and profile and article screamed at readers: Hey, Americans! We know you think politics is boring, but look how cool and fashionable and fascinating these people are!
With celebrities dressed up on the cover as Betsy Ross (Barbra Streisand) or Abraham Lincoln (Harrison Ford), and the inside relatively devoid of discussions of government policy, George offered a version of politics for Americans who weren’t that interested in politics. Lots of sweet frosting, almost no cake.
The magazine struggled financially from the start, never gaining a foothold with advertisers, and closed in 2001, nearly two years after Kennedy’s death in a plane crash. A lot of people thought the publication’s failure meant this hybrid mutant of People magazine and the New Republic had no natural market. From today’s perspective, George was just ahead of its time.
The most recent former president was a reality television show host. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has appeared on the covers of Vanity Fair and GQ and recorded a video about her beauty regimen for Vogue. The glossy mags have also given covers to Beto O’Rourke (Vanity Fair), Nancy Pelosi (Rolling Stone, with AOC and others) and Kamala D. Harris (Vogue). The cumulative guest list for late-night talk shows looks like the lineup of speakers at the Democratic National Convention.
Whether you find (usually Democratic) politicians fascinating, large swaths of entertainment media fervently believe that you will find politicians fascinating.
The integration of the worlds of entertainment and politics must be close to complete. Has that made politics better? Has that made entertainment better?
Yes, more Americans follow and are interested in politics now than a generation ago. The turnout in the 1988 presidential election was 52.8 percent of the voting eligible population; that figure rose to 58.2 percent in 1992 and dipped to 51.7 percent in 1996. By comparison, we haven’t been below 58 percent since 2000, and hit nearly 67 percent in 2020.
Today’s political scene is spilling over with over-the-top, provocative, larger-than-life performers, from Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene to AOC and her supporting cast in “the Squad.”
These figures certainly get people to pay attention to politics, as it becomes more and more like a nonstop circus with never-ending reality-show conflict and drama. Stacey Abrams rented a “hype house” for TikTok videos and a “swag truck” for her gubernatorial campaign. Kari Lake declared that former president Trump is the most amazing man in her life, ahead of her husband. Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, said he offended Trump by asking him to be his running mate in a 2024 presidential run.
Boring looks pretty appealing right now, doesn’t it?
It’s hard to argue that the celebrification of American politics has done anything to make government better.
Getting a lot more Americans interested in politics is not the same as getting a lot more Americans knowledgeable about the workings of democracy or government. It has brought the worldview associated with sports-talk radio to politics; you’ve got a team and you want that team to win, and the other team is always the worst, and the refs are always unfairly treating your side. Heaven forbid you concede that the other team played a better game.
You don’t have to look far to find Americans calling for speech restrictions that would violate the First Amendment, gun bans that would violate the Second Amendment, and “tough on crime” policies that would violate the Fourth Amendment. People complain that government isn’t doing what they want it to do, without caring to examine the document that lays out what the government can and cannot do.
It’s as though Americans have taken a shiny new federal government out of a gaudily wrapped box and are trying to make it work without bothering to read the instruction manual.
Many people appear to be surprised that it takes time to build consensus and pass legislation. Almost everything else in our lives can be tailored to our tastes, giving us exactly what we want, and nothing we don’t want. Legislation isn’t like that. You’re going to have to compromise and get a bunch of stuff you don’t want.
This hard fact of life is very much at odds with our on-demand consumer culture. Your music playlist, online reading list and video streaming options can be completely customized to your tastes, shaped by an algorithm. Legislation passed for the entire country or an entire state can’t.
Merging the world of Hollywood entertainment and celebrities aimed to get more Americans interested in politics, and it worked. Maybe it’s time to admit that was a mistake and reverse the trend.
For decades, a widespread, unexamined belief held that apolitical and apathetic Americans were some sort of problem or crisis to be solved. But what if apathetic Americans aren’t such a big problem? What if lots of Americans can live happy and fulfilling lives not caring that much about what’s going on in Washington or their state capital, or caring only intermittently? What if lots of people tuning out what’s going on … actually works better?
It’s a big world and it’s fine to be less interested in politics and more interested in gardening or sports or pop culture or cooking or novels or your pets or the great outdoors. Maintaining people’s interest in politics week after week, month after month, requires convincing them that the stakes are always huge, inescapable and irreversible: This is the most important election of our lifetime! If we get this one wrong, there’s no coming back!
The circus of politics means there’s never a shortage of doom-scrolling material on your phone. There’s always some new outrageous comment, some idiot state legislator you’ve never heard of proposing something ridiculous and blatantly unconstitutional. Every day, you can find some evidence to convince yourself that the inmates are now running the asylum, and that you, commonsense-blessed citizen, are an endangered minority.
No wonder so many Americans are angry and depressed. Maybe part of the problem is they sense that too many politicians, in a dangerous era with serious ills that need addressing, approach their job with the fatuous look-at-me self-absorption of a TikTok influencer.
The implicit promise of Joe Biden’s presidential run was that he’d work to make politics boring again, as he had for half a century. Didn’t happen. But that was the right idea.
This isn’t a call for not voting, for not paying attention during times of crises such as the Great Recession or the pandemic — or for yawning and shrugging off bad behavior by elected leaders or candidates for public office. This is just a plea — for politicians and the electorate — to stop regarding the federal government and 50 state governments as a stage for a giant, inescapable, never-ending reality show.
You can always tune back in when government does something that affects your life in a significant way. There’s no sin in leaving the decisions about a particular topic to be hashed out by those who care about it. Together, with enough effort, and enough discussions of actual policy and regulations and budgets, we can make American politics boring again.