Politics is a peculiar business. In a democracy we assume that the voters will determine the most basic positions that political actors take. In fact, people in the body politic tend to change more quickly than the institutions created by the people they elect. The political system falls behind the changes in the voting population. And then, by fits and starts, it begins to catch up.
People change because of changes in technology. If we could make technology stand still the changes in people would drastically slow. Imagine that in 1890, just before the introduction of the automobile, all changes in technology simply had stopped. Nothing had been invented afterward. We would still be plagued by diseases and medical conditions that would have us living constantly in fear of becoming ill. We would still be living on farms and in small villages where we would continue to begin families by marrying the girl next door. And, our children would be raised by parents who really were in control.
That world is almost entirely gone. What we are in the process of developing is a society being formed by our interactions with electronics (seldom is a fifth grader seen without a cell phone in his/her hand). Because the computer age began for most people, with the introduction of low cost or no cost entertainment, we have developed an entertainment culture. With the decline of formal religion and the passing of real work as a rite of passage for young adults, the purpose of life for many has become constant entertainment, entertainment without end.
In an entertainment culture almost everything is experienced as entertainment. Think back to the election of 2016. The Republicans, in their debates, began with seventeen competing presidential contenders. The “serious” candidate for many was Jeb Bush, a highly successful conservative governor of Florida (whose father and younger brother had both been presidents). The big money in the Republican Party believed that Jeb Bush was a sure winner (he had a hundred million dollars in contributions before he began).
Many will not even remember Jeb Bush. The actual winner was, of course, Donald Trump. Donald Trump had no political experience. Until just before he ran, he had been a Democrat. His business and marital career (both important to Republicans) were certainly open to criticism. His language and his actions would have sunk Barack Obama in an hour. He was the most entertaining!! The other sixteen candidates who largely relied on their experience and on traditional campaign rhetoric simply faded away.
We have now begun the run up to the 2020 presidential elections. Barring some unforeseen development, the Republican candidate will be Donald Trump. The Democrats, sensing Trump’s vulnerability, are signing up in droves. The “serious” candidate this time will be Vice-President Joe Biden who is in the process of gathering support for one last run for the Presidency. Then there is a gaggle of announced or about to be announced candidates including four outstanding women, Elizabeth Warren, Kamela Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar. Seventy seven year old Bernie Sanders has declared himself back in the race. There are currently at least fourteen declared candidates.
The declared candidates range from well-known Senators (including the four women mentioned above) to the little known and the unlikely (Tulsi Gabbard, Pete Buttigieg). The Senators are certainly capable and experienced. There is little reason to believe that they could not be competent occupiers of the Oval Office. They also employ a conventional and “unentertaining” political vocabulary and a speaking style.
Then, three days ago, Beto O’Rourke, having held back for weeks, announced that he was running too. For those who have been off tenting in Tasmania, Democrat Beto (bee tow) O’Rourke is the three term congressman from El Paso, who, in 2018, after a hyper-active, very personal campaign, nearly defeated Republican Senator Ted Cruz in Texas where no Democrat has won state wide for more than twenty years. On the strength of what is viewed as an almost miraculous campaign the attractive six foot four inch Kennedyesque O’Rourke (Congressman Joe Kennedy III claims O’Rourke, “is the best looking Kennedy in Washington”), has for many, become the great anti-Trump.
In this country there have been two groups who chronically undervote. One group is made up of “working class” citizens who feel frustrated and left behind as a result of declining industries (mining) in a period of technological advance. Many of those angry people became voters because they found Donald Trump and his outsized persona compelling in a way that none of the traditional candidates was able to do.
The other group is made up of young people, members of the “i phone generation”. They, more than any others, are conditioned to evaluate candidates based on their success as entertainment (Donald Trump will no longer have the field to himself). Beto O’Rourke, at forty six, has the energy of a hyperactive teenager. He speaks, and swears, off the cuff in two languages (one of his advantages over Ted Cruz was his ability to speak fluent unaccented Spanish). He began with a considerable time in punk bands. He will be entertaining!
One of the fascinating things about O’Rourke’s campaign will be the way that the other Democratic candidates respond to his candidacy. Their responses will certainly be informed by what happened to the more conventional Republicans in 2016. Then, facing Donald Trump, and the free exposure that even the networks gave him, candidates far more capable than Trump simply faded away. Once again conventional candidates are going to have a really difficult time. And, in an entertainment culture, faced with someone truly entertaining, Donald Trump will have a difficult time too.