Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Chicago way

America -- as far as I can remember from Poli-Sci classes in the previous milleniumn -- is meant to be a "Republican democracy." It's a grand experiment. Huzzah.

"Huzzzah" aside, the experiment is at risk from too much information – an unintended consequence of the media revolution.

My Cliff Notes assumption is that, in a democracy, an educated public (via free speech and free press) is supposed to have an educated discussion (re: political philosophy and policy application) and elect representatives accordingly. Screw that.

From the days of Nixon in 1968 (See The Selling of the President) politicians have been rebranding and packaging themselves. (A response to a new media called television, of course. For a good laugh, watch The Manchurian Candidate.) Political philosophy and policy gets boiled down to air bubbles like “Peace with honor." Granted, politicians have been lying bastards since the dawn of time. But McLuhanesque media forced them to make a science out of it.

It didn't always work that way.

According to my cousin (U of C military history major) Chicago Ward politics is the model for all successful politicians. Basically, there’s the horseshit you tell the public, then the shit you actually do. Based on corruption, graft, favor and promises, you must pay back the people who put you in. This necessitates a practical, reality-based confrontation of what-is. As a politician, you’re forced to face facts and deal with the real world. You owe patronage. You owe payback. Words don’t count. Your patrons need results.

The result was a no-nonsense, pragmatic practicality in the backroom deals American politicians made with the opponents they supposedly hated. As dirty as the system was, it forced politicians to confront reality – and make decisions accordingly. And not on the basis of the rhetorical horsecrap that got them elected. Talk is cheap. You gotta bring home the bacon. So it was.

Speeches are crap. Every chump pushing a broom knew that. What counted were the actual deals. The quid pro quo. What you got. Speeches aside, what you wanted was a guy who knew the score and got things done for the people who put him in office.

In other words, when it comes to American politics, there’s a layer of bullshit rhetoric above a layer of reality. Surprisingly, until, say, the 1960s, most people knew that. Even dirt farmers and sharecroppers. They weren’t that stupid. Huey Long said, “Every man a king!” What he meant was, “Put me in the goddamn governor’s mansion and I’ll make sure your kids get into college.” Even the dumbass hicks knew the score.

But, thanks to the power of advertising, the average American today doesn’t have the sense of a shitkicking hick from the 1930s.

To sell himself today, a politician must brand himself, and keep the message simple.

It’s morning in America. Elect me, and all the little children will have ice cream.

Somewhere along the line, people started taking this shit seriously. Then the politicians started taking their own shit seriously. Modern media killed the rough, reality-based pragmatism of backroom politics. What's left is ideology. Bullshit bulletpoints that sell.

Duh, the liberal media hates America. Duh, the evil corporations are putting thoughts in our heads.

Today’s cyber-savvy voters are networked. They know everything. There's a flood of information going into their heads. But they filter it all through the pre-existing narratives of Left or Right. These narratives have a quasi-religious certainty. There’s no discussion – no need to ask questions. Government is evil. Business is evil. You don't have to think about it, don't have to talk about it. You know.

Back in the bad old days, voters would ask selfish questions. What’s in it for me? What have you done for me lately? Huey Long would say, Jesus, this global warming thing. If this goes on, we’re screwed. He’d cut a deal in a smoke-filled room and make a speech that was filled with lies. But something would get done.

Back in the day, politics was bullshit. Nobody believed in it. But shit got done.

Today, the politicians believe their own bullshit. The people do too.

And nothing gets done.

America's stuck, kids. Our tires are spinning in the sand. We ain't going nowhere.

"Change" aside, that isn't likely to change.

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