Politics as Entertainment
LOS ANGELES — In 1976, to my regret, I wrote what amounted to an obituary of the Republican Party. Writing about the Democratic Convention in New York that year, I said:“The Republicans were declining into a parody of the nation and its politics, an aging clustering of white Protestants, small tycoons and shopkeepers from small places representing, according to polls, 20 percent or less of the American people. The party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt had deteriorated into a reactive core that lived off Democratic mistakes, which were many — so many that the Republicans had controlled the focus of national power, the presidency, for eight years under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.”Wrong! In fact, the Democrats were about to go into the tank.The Democrats chose weak and indecisive leaders, and stumbled through a series of economic and military misjudgments. The Grand Old Party got even older, finding an unlikely leader in his 70s, an old actor, Ronald Reagan, who mobilized young conservatives into energetically believing it was their morning in America. Reagan was able to unite the many right wings of America — militarists, old-fashioned fiscal conservatives, racists, angry populists who blamed big government for all problems, power-hungry young intellectuals from small colleges — into a winning coalition, while the Democrats got themselves tangled in complicated efforts to bring fairness and equality to their party.Then Reaganism ran out of steam and began making the kind of mistakes Democrats had made when they were running the country. It turned out that all the Republicans who loved Reagan disliked one another. Without the great man at the center, Reaganism exploded into dozens of factions that have finally shown themselves in the wonderfully wild series of presidential debates these past few months. Never have so many had so little to say about so much.For political junkies, this has been a season to remember. Tragedy tomorrow. Comedy tonight. When I ask my students at the University of Southern California what the Republican Party (and the debates) looks like to them, they almost always answer “a reality show.”There is a lot of that. You can sort of see a casting director moving from “Jersey Shore” over to the Republican National Committee and saying, “Get a look at this bunch — they’ll say anything!”What I see is an aquarium. The debates look like a tank full of exotic fish flashing their stuff for an instant at a time. You never see the whole thing, just flashes.
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