Politics as Theater: Al Gore and the Assault on Reason
Fresh off his Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," former Vice President Al Gore has authored a new book, The Assault on Reason. Excerpted in Time as part of a feature on Gore, the book is a jeremiad against the crippled state of American political discourse and democracy itself. But as prescient as Gore is on the decline of public debate in America, he may well understate the more fundamental transformation: politics itself as entertainment.
From inaction on global warming to Americans' passive march to war in Iraq, Gore asks:
"What happened to our country...Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?
We have checks and balances. We are a nation of laws. We have free speech. We have a free press. Have they all failed us? Why has America's public discourse become less focused and clear, less reasoned? Faith in the power of reason - the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available, instead of raw power - remains the central premise of American democracy. This premise is now under assault."
Judging from the Time excerpt, Gore offers a compelling set of explanations. He cites the explosive growth in television consumption, now exceeding four hours per day per person, even in an age of alternative media and entertainment resources. Exacerbating matters, "in the world of television, the massive flows of information are largely in only one direction," flows increasingly controlled by and concentrated in the hands of a small number of media firms. Making matters worse, "a new generation of media Machiavellis" in commercial advertising and politics is further perverting American democracy, as, in Gore's words, "the 'well-informed citizenry' is in danger of becoming the 'well-amused audience.'"
But in highlighting the peril of the "well-amused audience" that is now the U.S. electorate, Gore may have significantly understated the transformation of American politics. The trends he cites have fundamentally mutated "politics as discourse and debate" into "politics as theater and entertainment." In a nutshell, American politics must now compete with an oversupply of other entertainment and information sources, from television, radio, books, newspapers and magazines to web sites, online video, Podcasts and more.
The result is a 21st century "infotainment complex" where politics, news, opinion and entertainment merge. The result? There is no journalistic search for objective truth. Instead, all controversies are presented as ideological clashes featuring morality plays with two - and only two - sides. In that format, the "best" entertainers are the loudest, most aggressive and most theatrical. As I wrote in a 2005 review of George Lakoff''s "Don't Think Like an Elephant," that gives conservative themes and messages a huge built-in advantage:
Politics is now entertainment, part drama and part competition in a passion play where confrontation, conflict, and good versus evil rule the day. In a time of great uncertainty at home and abroad, for overworked Americans awash in sea of information, visceral appeals and gut-level emotions, not data, facts and analysis, cut through the noise.
And that gives the conservative message machine a significant, built-in advantage over liberals. Lakoff's "strict father" model for conservatives is tailor-made for the infotainment media of the 21st century. In this environment, confrontation, indignation, morality plays, good guys and axes of evil naturally dominate political debate, just as they do in Hollywood blockbusters. The initial progress of the liberal Air America Radio notwithstanding, the fury and self-righteousness of Fox News, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Hannity and Coulter makes much better theater than "nurturers" like Bill Moyers. Conservatives rage, liberals whine. And rage is much more entertaining.
The resulting damage to American politics and public policy is clear. The United States blindly rushed to war in Iraq, virtually without debate and without opposition. As an October 2003 PIPA survey showed, even after the invasion of Iraq, majorities of Americans continued to believe Bush administration claims about Saddam (Iraq role in 9/11, an alliance between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and Saddam's WMD) all long since proven false. (Unsurprisingly, viewers of Fox News were the most delusional.) As late as July 2006, fully 50% of Americans still believed the discredited claim that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. And as Gore well knows from his experience evangelizing action to curb global warming, the right has been very successful in creating the ephemera of "scientific uncertainty" through the propagation and promotion of hucksterism packaged as legitimate dissent. (For more on the time-tested conservative tactic of undermining reasoned public policy through the creation of uncertainty, see The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney).
In looking to possible solutions to our dilemma, Gore is certainly right that the long road back to reason must include decentralized, participatory democracy made possible by the Internet and other technologies. The disruption caused by the Netroots is transforming how campaigns mobilize grassroots support, raise money and disseminate messages. It also raises the bar for truth-telling and gaffe avoidance, when millions-strong armies left and right stand ready to check facts and circulate damning video clips. (Just ask George Allen about his ground-breaking "Macaca Moment.") Blogs, wikis, podcasts, online video and social networking sites are and will be a growing counterweight to the infotainment complex.
But the infotainment complex isn't going anywhere. Politics as theater is here to stay. We have to both fight the medium and fight within it. Entertainment and entertainers will be central for political parties and issue advocacy groups. Empty terms like authenticity and charisma will become even more important. (Al Gore, after all, should know this better than anybody. It's a large reason why he's not president now.) For good or ill, the future belongs to the likes of Barack Obama, John Edwards, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. For Tommy Thompson, Dennis Kucinich and their successors, their infotainment age prospects are probably best summed up by the expression "face made for radio."
In his new book, Al Gore describes his senior thesis on the impact of television on American politics and the "growing importance of visual rhetoric and body language over logic and reason." As he learned in 2000 and we continue to experience today, politics as theater appears to be a fact of life.