REALITY STRIKES BACK
An ever smaller proportion of adults in the US do real physical work. Their children increasingly have little real to do (some sixteen year-olds have nothing to do once they have made their bed). Simultaneously the producers of electronic entertainment have been able to produce ever more sophisticated and seductive, time consuming alternatives.
The result is a culture of entertainment. People who at one time would have mentally prepared themselves for the adult world of work can now look forward to being able to buy endless entertainment. It is not just the young. The need to be entertained has crept into the larger culture. The need to retreat from the real world is coming to characterize not just young people but the older population as well.
The reality is that the real political world is often not exciting at all. When these members of Congress are actually at work, actually doing what they are paid to do, few would call it exciting. There are endless meetings. There are documents to be read, filled with numbing detail (numbing enough that staff members usually actually do it). There are hearings to be held with long frustrating waits to be able to question witnesses (longer for new members because questions are normally asked by order of seniority).
Neither campaigning candidates nor the media covering them discuss what candidates in office actually do. They don’t think people would be interested. Candidates on the campaign trail are always in a hurry. They often have a timer in the audience tapping on his watch. They read the audience, decide what would stir their anger (and thus, be entertaining), build to a quick and theatrical crescendo, and leave.
Think about the 2016 presidential election: When Donald Trump ran as a Republican in 2016 there were sixteen other Republican candidates. Every one of those people knew more about the government than Donald Trump. Anyone interested in a competently run government would have known that the controversial Trump, with no political experience at all, was hardly the ideal candidate.
So which candidate did the voters in Republican primaries choose? The other candidates tried to be interesting but they were hindered by their subject matter and, by their vocabularies (too professional). Donald Trump in those famous rallies was free to swear and free to simply make things up (he could talk about his “great big beautiful wall”). He was elected because his “base” found him entertaining. More traditional Republicans, with no alternative candidate, went along.
If you were Donald Trump in 2016, landing in your big plane (with your name on the side) and dealing with a selected audience primed and waiting for you, you had it easy. If you are running for a lesser office and you are not a celebrity, things were much more difficult. The truth is that most people would know almost nothing about you or the office you were seeking. They are used to being entertained. They would want you to “talk like them” and to be exciting.
Therein lies a problem. Audiences, who, in their formative years, rode around with video games in their mothers’ shopping carts are not going to find much that candidates have to say all that interesting. As adults many are leading active lives, lives which do not require them to know much about the real government at all.
Donald Trump who knew almost nothing about the government himself (and cared little) quickly understood that. His rallies allowed the members of his audiences to be participants in an entertainment extravaganza. As his big plane circled and flew away he could feel the love washing over him and they were hooked.
Unfortunately, his campaign had very little to do with the real world that Donald Trump would face as President. Nothing in his experience prepared him to administer over two million government employees, deal with sophisticated foreign allies, or to understand and promote complex legislation.
He could through three years employ his energy in continuing his campaign (the rallies continued). He could spend his time writing hundreds of tweets directed to his followers from the rallies. What real administering was done was left to others. Then, when the pandemic hit, the charade was over. He did not know how to lead. The flailing continues but the rebel increasingly seems to be without a cause.
Donald Trump as always holds our attention but the real challenge the entertainment culture poses is more profound. How can a democracy work when technology is conditioning its citizens to elect candidates who entertain them by cultivating their anger? There is a lesson to be learned from this pandemic. We may blindly choose the candidates we find most entertaining. They may not be the ones really equipped to deal with the real world. In the real world, reality will strike back!