Gods Made in Our Image: Politicians As Entertainers
By John W. Whitehead
We’ve got to face it. Politics have entered a new stage, the television stage. Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans—“Time for a change”—“The mess in Washington”—“More bang for a buck”—punch lines and glamour. — A Face in the Crowd (1957)
We have entered a new age of political discourse in which Americans are content to think in sound bites and elect a president based on who can deliver the best campaign slogans and punch lines. But the campaign rhetoric of the leading presidential contenders tells us absolutely nothing about what the candidates can actually deliver: “Believe,” “Can Do,” “Ready to Lead on Day One.”
The candidates may very well hold substantive positions on critical issues of the day. Yet what we hear are 30-second platitudes, and all we see are airbrushed images and smiling faces. Between the incessant campaign commercials and televised debates, America is being treated to a tightly crafted entertainment spectacle that gives credence to Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “Politics is just like show business.” And the politicians have become the entertainers.
We are, of course, accustomed to being entertained, amused and distracted. Television, after all, is our national pastime. On average, American households watch more than eight hours of television per day, which includes nearly three hours of commercials. “An American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime, and has another million to go before the first Social Security check arrives,” writes professor Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death.
The candidates understand this. That’s why television, and television advertising in particular, has become such a favored medium for politicians. Television has altered the nature of political power, the means of political discourse and the way in which Americans think about and relate to their government. And television in general is driven by commercials.
The effect of TV ads upon the viewing public has been so successful and pervasive that it is impossible for a politician to wage a successful election campaign without the use of television advertising. Recognizing how powerful and manipulative a tool this can be, certain countries such as France, Germany and the UK actually forbid paid political advertisements on television.
People, it must be remembered, make their gods in their own image. Television politics has added a new wrinkle. “Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them to be,” notes Postman. Like television commercials, image politics is so much more about charm, good looks, celebrity and personal disclosure than it is about truth.
Yet very little happens in front of the camera that is not pre-planned, strategized and intended to manipulate the viewer’s response. Much like toothpaste, politicians have become products for consumption. Driven by market research, political ads are designed to sell you what you desire, as opposed to actually giving any in-depth information about the candidates themselves. This is an invaluable tool for politicians who can gear their message toward what the voter wants, rather than what the nation needs. In this way, television politics does not attempt to convey who might be best at being president but rather who has the best slogans and can get the best ratings.
There is no such thing as a 60-second solution to the world’s problems. And there’s no way to decide on the best candidate for the White House by watching a heavily scripted debate. Unfortunately, television advertising and our entertainment culture have adapted us to commercial-style content. As a result, Americans are fast losing the ability to think for themselves, let alone think analytically or contextually.
When I was coming of age in the 1960s, Americans had more than a rudimentary understanding of their government and its philosophical underpinnings. The Constitution meant something, as did the freedoms enshrined in it. The Constitution was composed at a time when most free people had access to their communities through leaflets, newspapers or the spoken word. They were literate and eager to share their political ideas with each other in forms and content over which they, as citizens, had control.
Our information environment today is completely different from what it was in 1787. We may have less to fear from government restraints than from television glut. In fact, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America. One reason is that Americans have become nonreaders, due in large part to the fact that television has replaced books.
This does not mean that those who control television limit our access to information. They widen it. Everything possible is done to encourage us to watch continuously. “But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual,” writes Postman.
Some of us worry that our freedoms are being constantly eroded and undermined by a government that amasses more power with every passing day. And yet too often we overlook our own culpability, not just in failing to defend our freedoms but in allowing ourselves to be so distracted by our entertainment culture that we cease to be aware of or even care much about what happens in the world beyond the TV screen.
Two of the greatest prophetic thinkers of the twentieth century were George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Contrary to common belief, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing.
Orwell warned in his novel 1984 of an authoritarian government run by Big Brother that would oppress the people. In Huxley’s vision of the future, no Big Brother would be required to rule the people. People in Huxley’s vision would come to love their oppression and to adore the very technologies that were destroying them. While Orwell feared that books would be banned, Huxley feared, as Postman recognizes, “that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” While Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information, Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to “passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
Huxley remarks in Brave New World Revisited that civil libertarians, who oppose tyranny, “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” While the government in 1984 controlled people by inflicting pain, in Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. “In short,” as Postman notes, “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”