Celebrity Culture, Reality TV, Political Anger – and Scott Brown’s Election

Republicans are claiming that Scott Brown’s election was an affirmation of their conservative ideology.  But it is unlikely that the majority of Massachusetts voters have so radically changed their values and views.  It is more likely that his election was the result of two other dynamics — the capture of the election process by our reality-show celebrity culture and the widespread anger about the mess that national elites have made of our society.  Both have implications for advocates. 

Why do so many people get so involved with celebrities?  As Joseph Campbell so insightfully taught, throughout human history we’ve celebrated heroes – people, deities, and even creatures who represent our ideals and our fantasies.  And we’ve created myths – stories about those heroes that models ways to struggle with the hardships and fears of our existence.

Once, these myths were passed from mouth to ear; and then from page to eye.  As modern media – radio, TV, movies – spread its influence over our culture it rapidly took over the myth-making function from religious and folk-lore story tellers and books. Modern media’s increasingly graphic, emotive, and immersive power made it a powerful cultural force.  It’s not surprising that after a while the people who portrayed heroes in the media became as well-known as the characters they represented.   Eventually, media exposure itself was enough to make people into a larger-than life entity on whom others could project their emotions…. and we began the transition from hero to celebrity, from people known for their virtues to people who are known by virtue of being known.

We identify with celebrities who are simultaneously the new Olympians and people just like us.  Best of all, even though they live at a level of the world beyond our own, their mythological life is still unfolding.  Every new headline brings another episode in the story of Brad, or Jennifer, or Tom, or Paris, Britney Lindsey, and all the rest of the tabloid pantheon.  We get to see the myth while it’s still being created – in fact, we voyeuristically participate in its creation!   No wonder that reality shows have taken over TV.  Not only are they cheaper to make than scripted series, but they dramatize the full range of emotions from petty jealousy to intense pride.  Reality shows let us see people like us act out in ways in which we can recognize ourselves.  They, like we, are “real.”

Of course, this cultural expectation has drifted into the political world as well.  One of the reason’s people said they voted for George Bush was that he was a “regular guy,” someone you could “have a beer with.”  Candidates have to be “authentic” — real people with real personalities and recognizable emotions.  In a post-election column, Brian McGrory described Brown as the sexy and friendly person you happily flirt with near the end of a slightly drunken party, and Coakley as the boring wallflower in the corner.  Scott Brown was rock star.  Martha Coakley was a dud.

The second reason for Brown’s upset election is public anger at disappointed hopes, unfulfilled promises, and a sense of indifference by the national and state establishment.  In the midst of an economic collapse of potentially disastrous proportions, Barak Obama’s candidacy was a protest against the Bush Administration’s failure to protect our well-being.  Leaders are supposed to be in charge, to be powerful, and able to accomplish things – if not, why have them in power:  The Republicans had failed.  They had lost what the Chinese call “the mandate of heaven.”  Obama’s campaign was not only tactically brilliant, but as an African American he inherited the moral legitimacy and American idealism of the Civil Rights movement.  As a reaction against the Bush Administration’s insult to our national dignity, Obama’s election was a cry of hope for a better and more civil future.

But, immediately upon taking office, Obama’s pragmatic and moderate politics led to a decision to save the collapsing financial system rather than use the crisis to radically transform it, to bail out the speculators who had caused the problem rather than provide direct relief to average people who had lost their jobs or homes.  And once the establishment knew that they were safe, they began pushing back against any further redistribution of wealth or power.  The GOP, which has become a unified and disciplined right-wing party over the past two decades (unlike the Democrats who are still a traditional “big tent” coalition), saw its opportunity and obstructed everything it could.  (Finance sector executives were major contributors to Scott Brown’s campaign, and the Supreme Court ruling allowing virtually unlimited corporate political spending means that more is coming for the rest of the GOP.)   Obama, and the Democrats, didn’t seem able to deliver on anything without watering it down to the point that it no longer seemed to embody the values it was supposed to serve.  Even worse, by becoming identified with the bail-out of the finance speculators and their endlessly self-enriching schemes instead of with direct help to unemployed citizens,  Obama has become identified as part of the establishment rather than a reformer, as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

It is true that Obama’s management of the fiscal crises prevented a total collapse of the economy; but (as in health) prevention is invisible.  And it is also true that , out of the spotlight, Obama’s appointees are reversing much of the damage of the previous right wing wrecking crew.  But in a culture whose political climate is set by mass media, the Democratic Administration seem ineffectual and increasingly out of touch with the anxiety-ridden reality of ordinary people.

There’s been a similar dynamic here in Massachusetts.  Deval Patrick was elected Governor with a promise to end politics as usual.  But what people really want is effective leadership – and the state Administration has repeatedly blundered both internally and in its ability to get Legislative action.  Then when Martha Coakley won the primary, almost everyone – including me – assumed that it was tantamount to winning the election.  She hardly ran.  Even worse, she came across as above it all, indifferent – and insulting.  “Do you expect me to stand outside Fenway Park and shake hands?” she said, insulting nearly everyone as well as the region’s secular religion.  It was almost as if she was trying to loose.

And she did.  A vote for Scott Brown was an angry shout against the failure of Democrats to produce, against an establishment that seemed distant from ordinary people’s problems, against being taken for granted.  (And, he was a regular guy and sexy rock star, too!)

As this nation’s electoral process becomes less able to produce effective government action on a host of critical issues, it is fascinating to notice the increasingly frequent mentions of China’s powerful efforts to maintain economic growth through infrastructure investment, to address climate change and resource scarcity through alternative energy and emission controls, to protect public health by recreating a national system, and on and on.  While acknowledging China’s gargantuan problems, people are increasingly complimentary about its ability to be decisive and implement large-scale programs.  It is likely that China will replace the USA as the world’s most important country by the end of this century – if not sooner.  But our best hope for a “soft landing” is not to copy China’s model of authoritarian state capitalism, or even its American cousin of authoritarian corporatism.  Our version of democracy structurally favors the powerful over the populace, and makes it very difficult to effect progressive change.  But once change is won, the same built-in conservatism makes it harder to quickly undo the reforms.  In any case, it’s what we’ve got, and we better make good use of it.

What does this mean for advocates?  Most fundamentally, it means the end of what little was left of Obama’s national reform agenda.  He still has some flexibility around issues that are solely within the purview of the executive branch.  And his appointees will still make important changes in the day-to-day operations of agencies.  But for the larger issues, the ones requiring Congressional approval or that might upset established interests, the only reforms that will get passed from now on are those that meet the Republican’s demands – which means those that support business and further cripple the public sector, not to mention the cultural issues that Obama will have to give up as well.  And it is likely that things will get even worse after the mid-tern Congressional elections.

At a deeper level, it means that advocates, whose relationship with public leaders has always required a careful balancing of protest and partnership, will eventually have to tilt more towards the protest side.   Advocates like feeling like insiders – able to directly talk with decision-makers and give heeded advice to program administrators.  But not only will public officials have increasingly limited political room to move, the public sector’s continuing revenue starvation – a deliberate strategy of the right wing since the Contract With America in 1994 – has eliminated their ability to pay for new initiatives.  To be effective, advocates are going to have to act more like they did during the Bush years, to express more of the popular anger against an unyielding status quo, to insist that the needs of ordinary people have to come before the profits of the commercial elite – and to do it all in ways that make us part of the population rather than a special group patronizingly floating above.  We will have to rebuild a movement for progressive change.

Fortunately, while the tide is turning it has not yet run out.  There is time to secure some gains, to win some concrete improvements, to claim some important victories.  We in Massachusetts have already begun learning how to operate in a difficult political landscape.  We have to get over our shock at the election of Scott Brown and start organizing again.

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