If a man had fallen asleep in 1980 and woke up in this age, he would be amazed at many things. We can easily think of the technological stuff like social media, Zoom calls and mobile devices. Then you have the cynical stull like the failure get back to the moon, much less Mars. One less obvious change is the explosion of entertainment and the public obsession with being entertained. Forty years ago, people did not expect to be constantly entertained throughout their day.
One aspect of the saturation of entertainment is how public affairs transformed into something like Vaudeville. People dream up new acts and new characters to play on-line and on television. If the act works, we get a flood of imitators. Once that runs its course, someone cooks up a new way to separate from the rest of the performers and they have their run on the big stage. Politics in this age is pure theater, centered on various acts making claims to certain audiences.
Unlike jugglers or sword swallowers, political theater is not transactional. In the conventional form, entertainment is about the performer getting your attention, which causes you to pay to see their act. There is no connection between the audience and the performer, beyond the implicit agreement that he will do his best to entertain you and you will applaud when he does. In political theater, you are supposed to care about the performer and do what you can to boost his career.
This post over at American Greatness gets at this odd nature of political entertainment with regards to Conservative Inc.. The post is a takeoff on something Michael Anton said about the conservative rackets. Wealthy people lavish conservative rackets with cash, despite the fact they accomplish nothing. In fact, it is fair to say that Conservative Inc. is just an enabler of the things they pretend to oppose. In other words, they lose on purpose, and they know they are losing on purpose.
The post goes on to talk about how easily conservative donors are duped by people like Jonah Goldberg or Ramesh Ponnuru into handing over cash. National Review just raised $100,000 on-line despite having no audience outside the institutions of Conservative Inc. and even that is debatable. The Bulwark and Dispatch have billionaire support even though they have no audience. Why is it that smart people with money are easily fooled by these hustlers?
One reason is the nature of political entertainment. When you watch a movie or television show, it is a passive act. There is a clear divide between you and the performers on stage. In political theater, each member of the audience is drawn into the act, feeling like they have an impact on the performance. Even when it is not interactive, the person watching tends to feel like his caring about what he sees and hears can change what is happening in the show.
Jonah Goldberg is a useful example in that he is one of the more successful political entertainers of this age. He is also a creature of the new political entertainment that emerged in the 1990’s with the widescale adoption of the internet. He started out fetching coffee for the far-left extremist Ben Wattenberg, who had a long running show on state television. In prior times, this would have been about as far as Goldberg would go in the realm of current events programming.
Instead, he landed the role of internet slacker for National Review’s new on-line venture that was aimed at a younger and hipper crowd. Goldberg’s role required him to blend official dogma with snarky pop culture references. Early in his role, he often made jokes about his slacker lifestyle. He invited readers to e-mail him, and he would often post about the exchanges. Later, comments were added to the site, and he would respond to them from time to time.
Goldberg got famous and very rich despite being as dumb as a goldfish and peddling boilerplate neoconservatism. The reason for this is his fans felt like they were a part of his act and there were having an impact on what he was saying. Despite the fact that he and his neocon cronies have slithered back to the Left, many of his fans still follow him at his new venture. In other words, even after it is clear that Goldberg would happily gas his readership, many remain engaged with him.
The main result of the relationship between political performers and their marks is that they are able to transfer their interests onto the audience. That is, the audience for this stuff cares about things that are good for the guys who they follow. The donors who get to have dinner with the team at the Dispatch are not thinking about the issues being promoted so much as the people promoting them. They feel like they are part of the show and have some input on the performance.
Conservative Inc. is a long sophisticated confidence game. It was not always this way, but it evolved into a racket in the 1990’s. It coincides with the explosion of mass media and the emerging entertainment culture. Going back to the Rip Van Winkle at the start of this post, he would be baffled by how people identify themselves by the types of entertainment they consume. Putting your sports teams in your social media profile would seem bizarre to a man from the 1980’s.
This is something Ryszard Legutko noted in his excellent book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. Legutko is a polish politician who was involved in the Solidarity Movement. Among many excellent observations, he notes the lack of seriousness in liberal democratic politics. Everyone is consumed with leisure and being entertained. Adults are encouraged to act like children, even in areas like politics which should be the domain of the sober minded.
In this light, the boiling off of serious political actors from the large public stages is perfectly rational. The serious critics of the war machine, for example, may be correct in their observations, but they get marginalized because they do not offer the larger audience the thing they crave. They are the party poopers who yell at the people at the party for not caring about some cause. Worse yet, they remind adults that they are acting like children, so they are shunned.
The same can be said for the fringe on the other side. Immigration patriots are not littering their commentary with pop culture references. They are not flattering their audience with the promise that if they care enough, the ending of the show will be just as they imagined. Instead, they warn about demographic collapse and that is just a total downer, and no one wants to hear it. The most hated man is the serious person in a room full of silly people looking for a good time.
What this suggests is that outsiders have two choices. One is to put on the grease paint and get out there and please the crowd. The people demanding Medicare for all need to make it fun to care about such things. The Straussian critics of conservatism have to put on a better show, out-clown people like David French. Otherwise, the alternative is to work the small stage waiting for when the times need serious men and the people in charge are not up for the task.
Those are not pleasant options, but adults are supposed to accept that often the choices are not very good. Serious people know that the best you can do sometimes is play a bad hand so you can play the next hand. They are also supposed to know that society is a big complicated thing and you cannot easily alter it. often, you just have to let things play out and prepare for it. The antidote to frivolity is not more frivolity but a sober-minded acceptance of reality, no matter how unpopular.
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