Following American presidential elections intelligently is a tricky thing to do. No spectacle anywhere in the world gets as much attention as the world’s longest and most grueling marathon. After all, the US president is the most powerful office holder in the world, commander in chief of the greatest military forces ever assembled, and the lead policy maker for the largest economy any nation has ever constructed. At the same time, the America election process is a window into the soul of the public opinion of a society that by turns attracts, alarms and repulses — but always fascinates — the rest of the world. And with the world’s largest, best capitalized and most globally influential media assemblage fixated on the American election cycle, the spectacle has long since become, quite literally, the Greatest Show on Earth.
Nobody interested in the affairs of the contemporary world will want — or be able — to ignore an American presidential campaign. But at the same time, it must be clear to any serious observer of the contemporary scene that to follow the spectacle too closely involves a colossal waste of energy and time that could be more usefully expended on other pursuits. The media fixation with the minutiae of the campaign, the endless gaffe quest and mindless herd behavior by the journalistic pack, the bootless but inevitable speculation concerning the various coming landmarks and events from the Iowa State Fair through Election Night: all this is a necessary and unavoidable part of the process, and while the serious student of the contemporary world needs to keep an eye on the carnival, to be swallowed up in it and to spend undue time and mental energy on the meaningless and the trivial is to become less effective and less well informed.
Now as an amusement there’s nothing wrong with tunneling into the the delicious minutiae of the presidential campaign and feasting on all the thrills and spills that it provides. Why shouldn’t we enjoy what politics provides? If people want to amuse themselves by reading blow by blow Veep speculation or disputes over crowd size at summertime political events, that’s a legitimate personal choice and a harmless hobby. Some people build model airplanes, some people follow rock bands, some people obsess about presidential campaigns. Humanity was not made to work all the time; innocent amusements are part of what life is about.
But following politics in this sense isn’t a serious pursuit, anymore than being a fanatical hockey fan or a Civil War re-enactor is a serious pursuit. And while most hobbyists and sports fans are realistic about the value of their fixations, politics fans often labor under the delusion that they are being serious and engaged when they are in fact goofing off. Election coverage often feeds this delusion, both because it is good business for the media to flatter its customers and because many pundits and reporters themselves get so caught up in the chase that they lose perspective on the inconsequential nature of so much of what they cover and write.
I hate to be the cranky voice of dissent here, but cluttering ones memory with ephemeral trivia while basking in the adrenalin rush caused by meaningless events is not the characteristic activity of a superior mind. People who follow politics incessantly and argue heatedly about it at every opportunity may and often do think they are more intelligent and more public spirited than people who have that kind of interest in baseball or quilting; that belief marks a failure to understand how politics and power work. (Like so many vices it is excusable in the young and can even be a sign of budding promise; but like most vices it grows progressively less attractive as the years advance.)
Let me emphasize again that political fandom is OK and harmless as far as it goes — you just need to remember that fandom is all it is and it is no more part of the serious business of life than attending Star Trek conventions. But the wise politics fan like the wise Star Trekker, knows that following a favorite hobby horse doesn’t make you a better citizen or even a more informed voter.
This kind of obsession isn’t necessarily worthless. All knowledge, even the knowledge of trivia is good in and of itself, and the exercise of acquiring, organizing and retaining knowledge of any kind can be good for the brain. It is difficult to think of a kind of knowledge that doesn’t have some kind of usefulness. Nevertheless, to be a politics fan doesn’t primarily make you more powerful, better tuned into what matters or anything: it just keeps you busy and entertained. (Partial exception alert: Some people turn hobbies into professions. A baseball fanatic might grow up into a sports journalist or work for a baseball team in some way, just as young politics buffs sometimes get work in campaigns or as journalists. The sportswriter and the campaign reporter are mostly in the same infotainment business; the difference is that the sportswriter usually has a more realistic and balanced understanding of the nature and limits of the work.)
Thankfully, I was out of the country during the so-called “height” of the Veepstakes, a quadrennial guessing game among the chattering classes during which a lot of bright people pass a lot of time in idle and pointless speculation. No talking head analyzing a presidential candidate’s Veep selections ever added value in the sense of making the world a happier or safer place. Any value added comes under the infotainment category: they made the world seem more interesting and they engaged in an entertaining performance with other talking heads who had different ideas about who the Veep pick would be.
Before the Veep announcement is made, nobody’s speculation counts for much. Once the announcement is made, not a single living soul on Planet Earth gives a rat’s patootie about the speculations that so consumed the “intelligentsia” a short 24 hours before. The press is at its least significant during rituals of this kind; these are the times when people who aspire to gain a significant understanding of world and national affairs and have some kind of meaningful impact on the world around them should tune out the chit chat and go read a good book or do a good deed. I recommend travel to India as one way to keep yourself from getting sucked in by nothingness during these periods; monastic retreats might also help.
Learning how to tune out the buzz and the drivel, and learning how to develop a focus on events which will not be distracted by media hype of pseudo-events is one of the most difficult yet necessary skills for young Americans who aspire to play a significant role in national life. It’s not just because close following of political minutiae under the impression that this matters wastes your time and fills your head with fluff. The time lost in this way should have been used for learning the stuff you really need to know — and honing your skills of distinguishing between vapid knowledge and useful knowledge. This is one of the most important of all skills for young Americans to learn and it is one that our society and educational system does more to conceal than to teach.
America is a kind of open puzzle. The “secrets” about how things work for the most part aren’t carefully hidden away in government vaults or in exclusive private organizations. The Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission aren’t sending the hidden truths to the Illuminati in black helicopters.
In America, we do things differently. The facts of power are out there for anybody to discover, but they are hidden in vast piles of shlock. The needles aren’t locked up in vaults, but they are scattered through a vast number of haystacks. You can learn a lot about how the world works by taking good courses in high school and college — but many places don’t teach the right courses and almost everywhere the stuff that will help you understand the world is tucked away in course catalogs full of fluff.
In our country, we conceal in full view. The important news is mostly on the web and in at least some of the papers, rather than passed as handwritten notes between Henry Kissinger and Goldman Sachs. However the best newspapers often mix a few sprinkles of the good stuff in a vast tub of swill. That’s often because the reporters and editors aren’t well trained to carry out a smart sorting process, but it’s also because the business model of the legacy media requires a lot of infotainment in the mix to keep a mass audience. Veep buzz however intellectually trivial and politically pointless sells, and what sells, runs.
So the media battle space fills up with Veep buzz and poll chat. There’s a constant tug toward speculation as opposed to analysis: who will win in November versus what is going on in the country. Large numbers of people get sidelined by the flash and the noise; they immerse themselves in the media coverage of politics without ever getting closer to an understanding of how power really works in America. Minds filled with infotainment, they not only lack much of the basic information that would allow them to get out of the spectator seats and down onto the field of play; they also lack — because no one ever teaches it — the ability to discriminate between trivia and real news.
Campaign coverage is one the things in which the legacy media is most heavily invested (figuratively as well as literally) and as a result the intellectual weakness of the foundations of the modern media’s approach to news is painfully evident. The legacy press is frequently attacked for being biased, which it often is, but the real problem is lack of discrimination: so much money and space go to what people used to call vanity (by which they meant emptiness and pointlessness rather than pride and conceit) that mainstream coverage is more like cotton candy than anything else: bright, sweet, evanescent and insubstantial — but hard to see through or keep clear of.
I don’t say this in the spirit of Savonarola. A lot of people like cotton candy and trips to the State Fair. And the media, legacy or otherwise, must operate within the framework of a competitive marketplace. The circus will go on because people like circuses and there is money to be made in producing them.
But there are, I think, people in this country who want something more substantial. There are people who want to know what’s going on because they are trying to act effectively in this world and they need critical information and useful insights. They may be political leaders and policy makers trying to make the right decisions in tumultuous times. They may be professionals steering careers and social institutions in a changing environment. They may be investors who want to think more clearly about where opportunity really lies. They may be students and young people who really want to make their lives count. They may be parents or teachers trying to prepare the next generation for life in a confusing and dangerous world.
Anybody can have some cotton candy and a corn dog once in a while without ill effects, but Olympic athletes in training need better nutrition than that. Anybody can waste a few hours chewing over Veep speculations or trying to predict something that nobody can really know today but that everybody will know tomorrow.
But for people who are more interested in shaping the future, it’s important to grasp that this is one of those times when politics feels more important than usual but in fact matters less. The status quo doesn’t fit well and doesn’t work well so we look toward politics for answers, but the politicians don’t have what we need.
This is not anybody’s fault. As regular readers know, our view is that the US stands at an uncomfortable transition point between eras. We are between social models. The blue model of twentieth century mass production, mass consumption society based on stable corporate oligopoly, bloc voting and government regulation in a relatively closed national economy has foundered and it cannot, so far as we can see here, be restored. But we have at best only a very dim and incomplete sense of what could replace it.
This means that we are at a moment of maximum discomfort nationally, and we want our politicians and leaders to fix things — but that neither party really knows what to do. On the whole, the Democrats stand for restoring the blue model and Republicans oppose that and so far, so good. The choices between the parties seem to be growing more clear as the problems resulting from the decay of the blue model take a larger toll.
Yet neither party can offer the smooth path to a stable and affluent future that voters want. The Democrats know what they want but can’t deliver it because it is undeliverable. The Republicans know what they don’t want but are not able to describe the future they would like to see — much less show how they can manage the transition fairly and kindly because they don’t really know what the goal looks like.
Our problem is that the time isn’t ripe: the real work of our society right now isn’t about political competition. It is about re-imagining, reinventing and restructuring core institutions and professions. Our health care system is wasteful and poorly organized and if in the next generation we don’t fundamentally reorganize it the country will go broke. Our educational system from kindergarten through grad school needs a variety of upgrades and innovations. Mass employment through manufacturing cannot support the kind of middle class society it once did; conventional big box retail cannot do it; government employment and subsidies can’t do it. Americans must find new ways to organize themselves for work and production, and we must learn to produce different (better and more interesting) goods. We must complete the transition from a late stage industrial society to an early stage information society and it’s something that nobody has ever done before in the history of the world.
Neither party, it must be emphasized, knows what to do about these issues. To a very large degree the solutions are outside politics. Policy and therefore politics will play a significant role ultimately in either furthering or retarding the changes we need, but so much of the shape of the future is still unknown that nobody can really tell us what should be done and in what order to create the best possible conditions in which a brighter future most quickly and most stably emerge.
The legacy media are going to have a tough job shifting from noisy political pseudo-drama (much of which has more in common with professional wrestling than real politics) to the kind of substance based reporting that people actually need. Covering the revolutions in higher ed, medicine, state and municipal governance (including things like the pension crisis) is much more important than having talking heads gas about potential Veep picks or speculate about debate strategies and poll trends. But it’s hard for legacy organizations with their heavy fixed costs, pension overhangs and creaking business models to pull away from campaign infotainment and invest in real news.
Among the American institutions in need of reinvention is the serious press; the intellectual framework of the legacy media is as broken as its business model. At Via Meadia we are trying to explore new ways of thinking about news as well as new ways of covering it. This almost infinitely prolonged presidential campaign, the world’s largest and longest running State Fair, has us thinking hard about what serious people really need to know about American politics, and how that essential information can be provided without the cotton candy.
[Image courtesy Shutterstock]