Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Is the TV Killing the GOP?

Martin "BooMan" Longman published a brief appreciation for sit-coms yesterday afternoon, observing in the process a history of the displacement in the genre of "idealized" white suburban nuclear families by more realistically struggling and diverse families. I placed that word "idealized" in scare-quotes there because I have always experienced "Leave It To Beaver" and comparable fare as profoundly authoritarian and alienated nightmares seething with a scarcely suppressed trauma, aggression, and rage testified to by painfully awkward and symptomatic upwellings of "humor" only signaled as such by a sinister laugh track hysterically demanding and representing America deny, deny, deny the horror we are witnessing before our very eyes… but perhaps this is all just me?

Anyway, BooMan's post was observational and the discussion it provoked has likewise been mostly observational, folks talking about various representations of diversity in the history of the American generic sit-com, mixed race couples, queer folks, and so on. But I am assuming the proximate prompt and context for understanding the import of BooMan's post was a widely read Daily Beast discussion from the day before called How TV Killed the Republican Party's Family Values, proposing:
Republicans are searching for an explanation as to why voters rejected their vision of America. The answer may be on their television screens, where an ever-expanding, bluer definition of family values makes their nostalgic idea of family values feel like a foreign world.
It should go without saying, of course, that the "nostalgia" peddled in the name of family values by the GOP was always a complete fantasy imposed on a past that never existed in the name of a future few really wanted, and part of what is interesting about the discussion in BooMan's post is that American popular media, even at its most skewed and delusive, actually always already testified to these realities, with the dysfunctional "Honeymooners" prefiguring the anti-familial hostility of "Married, With Children," the mixed couple at the heart of "I Love Lucy" predating couples in "The Jeffersons" and "Six Feet Under," and so on. Needless to say, the Moral Majority -- like the Nixon's "Silent Majority" before it and Palin's "Real Americans" after it -- was a minority, in fact.

But I do think it is important in telling this kind of blandly triumphalist story of convivial media culture to include as part of it the way television punditry enabled the circulation and authorization of the very lies their entertainments gave the lie to. One must tell the story especially of the facilitation through television punditry -- in the era of syndication, cable, and the 24 hour news-cycle -- of a cottage industry of pseudo-expertise and pseudo-intellectuals and an archipelago of deceptive promotional think-tanks displacing the academy and the professions as spaces out of which reliable knowledge is produced and disseminated. This discursive industry -- fed by inputs from for-profit PR vessels, shaped by the deceptive, hyperbolic, circulatory momenta of marketing norms and forms, largely indifferent to empirical checks or professional standards or principled conscience -- drove, repeated, amplified rationalizations of, by, and for elite incumbent interests and their bought and paid for representatives to legislate on the basis of a very different set of narratives than the narratives through which sit-coms on the very same networks on the very same days testified to altogether different social and cultural realities.

This is to say, before we tell ourselves self-congratulatory stories of sit-com artistry killing the ugly intolerant lies of the white racist greedhead pricks of the GOP we should surely tell ourselves more self-critical stories as well of sit-con-artistry invigorating the very lies through which intolerant, inequitable, parochial, unsustainable, sexist policies were and are rationalized and implemented by the GOP (and timorous Democrats defined by the Movement Republican ascendancy).

Speaking of this curious, almost schizophrenic, mass-media disjunct between convivial cultural representation and incumbent-elite policy representation, let me turn by way of conclusion to a reminder about the Culture Wars and how the liberal and conservative experience of culture has generated some seriously paradoxical political effects (this is a topic about which BooMan and I have had a friendly exchange in the past, by the way). Lefty commentators are often reduced to sputtering disbelief when they confront the endlessly repeated charge by folks on the Right about a nefarious bias amounting to something like an all-encompassing conspiracy of what they call "The Liberal Media." We shake our fists in hopeless frustration at the efforts of "mainstream media" to seem balanced in the face of such charges by constructing elaborate and ridiculous fantasies of "equivalency" concerning the scale of deception, dirty tricks, recourse to pseudo-scientific nonsense and so on of partisans of the left and right. We are reduced to slack-jawed amazement to hear conservatives speak of white guys as victims of racism, American Christians as suffering from sweeping persecutions from secularists, modest regulations enabling stable reliable market exchanged as socialism, and so on.

When reactionary Republicans speak of the Liberal Media and secular Democrats debunk such talk as nonsense, the focus of the argument tends to focus on the news media -- which is where the Republican arguments have been most successful in pressuring skewed outcomes to their benefit, and where the Democratic counter-argument happens also to be most edifying in its obvious truth. It is important to point out, however, that what is probably fueling most of the rage and despair and panic of Republicans who make these charges about a Liberal Media has much less to do with the news media and much more to do with the sit coms and other entertainments I was talking about before. Popular entertainments reflect much more of the real diversity of the audiences whose attention they mean to attract and keep than reactionary conservatives are comfortable with -- need I point out that this diversity and its legitimate demands are the uncomfortable realities against which reactionary conservatives are reacting in the first place? -- and the situations that drive popular situation comedy and stakes that drive popular dramas are drawn from much more of the real situations and stakes of the world with which those audiences are actually coping than the news media tends to do as it stages abstract debates in which the various constituted players with seats at the table contend over policy outcomes to benefit various paid clients and established constituencies.

America is a diversifying, secularizing, planetizing polyculture, and it is this America that entertainment media reflects (even if, through a glass darkly) and conservatives deplore -- hence the lament about the Liberal Media. It strikes me that this state of affairs also helps clarify the abiding problem often rather over-simplistically denominated by phrases like "low Democratic voter enthusiasm" or "unreliable Democratic base voters." Just as Republicans battle ongoing diversification and secularization with the ferocious discipline of an army fighting what is always the Last Battle beyond which they discern existential defeat, so too do secular democrats living in an actually obviously secular diverse world find it hard to square their lived reality with the stakes literally posed by the policies advocated by Republican politics, even as those politics directly and conspicuously target them.

For folks who left their small towns for college or life in the city it was hard to believe that the reality of America was not that small town you left behind, that America went to college and to the city right along with you. Republicans benefited from those misconceptions for a long time. So, too, it is hard to believe that abortion rights are in peril, even as they are literally abolished before your eyes, when their availability has been something you have taken for granted all your life and which everybody around always supports (few who even claim to disapprove of them seem to believe that a person who has or performs an abortion should really be treated as murderer, which presumably a real opponent would have to believe, for example). It is hard to believe that your friends who are gay or who flirt and date without a thought to race are targeted by organizations and campaigns for discrimination or abuse. Republicans benefited from those misconceptions for a long time, too. To switch gears a bit for a moment, so, too, it is hard to believe that policy outcomes preferred by large majorities of citizens (that everybody should have access to good healthcare, that quality educations should be readily available to everybody at reasonable cost, that rich people who benefit more from our social arrangements should pay a bit more in taxes to maintain them, that climate change is real and that we should be investing massively in a renewable energy infrastructure whatever the costs now given the costs of failure in the future, that licensing gun use and restricting the private purchase of assault weapons doesn't impair our fundamental freedoms unduly, that America's diversity is our strength and our pride and should never be a barrier to equity, that consenting adults should be able to enjoy recreational drugs if they aren't harming anybody, and so on) in even notionally Democratic societies somehow fail even to get any hearing at all, and it is easier to condemn all politicians as corrupt and hypocritical than to grasp the complexities of governance that can yield such frustrations without sustained organization of the very kind disabled by such cynicism pushing hard for reform in spite of that frustration.

For those of us who lived through the 2012 campaign, it is hard not to hope that at last those misconceptions may have begun to lose their grip. It may well be that the Obama era will be understood as the moment when the Southern Strategy finally failed, when "god, guns, and gays" finally failed, when LBJ's prophesy of a long generation lost to progress as the payment for the reality of progress was finally put paid, and when the Left's victory in the Culture Wars no longer paradoxically maintained the psychological conditions under which those wars could still be waged in an afterlife of non-representative grievance in the sphere of representative governance.

Perhaps it didn't take a revolution after all, perhaps it was a revolution of a sort, perhaps the revolution is what comes next -- but it turns out that this shift, like so much else, for better and for worse, was and will be televised.

1 comment:

jollyspaniard said...

I did notice that the blogger at Ace of Spades went absolutely doubleplus apeshit batshit crazy mad in reaction to that article. He didn't even try to rebut it just repeated over and over how much he hated the fact that somebody wrote it. These people are in denial, retreating in conspiracy theories and racism.

The GOP is in a tight bind. I suspect they're going to try economic populism in the same vein that Palin and Santorum tried to do unsucessfuly but with less stupid and less religion. That's going to be tough, GOP candidates need to display large quantities of stupid to make it through primaries by which point its all on the Youtube.