Reflecting on a National Disaster

Watching the 2016 presidential election has felt a lot like watching one of those terrible low-budget movies on the SyFy channel. You know it’s going to be painful, but still for some reason you watch. You’re not exactly sure why. All you know is that deep down you’re compelled by a morbid curiosity to find out just how bad it’s going to be.

And when it comes to the election, “bad” doesn’t even begin to describe the debacle that we’ve been witnessing. Donald vs. Hillary has been the kind of showdown that would make Mega Python vs Gatoroid look like the most sophisticated arthouse film ever created. (Yes, that’s a real movie, by the way.) It’s been downright awful. I feel like I can’t even read mainstream news articles about the election anymore without setting off the internet accountability software on my computer. It’s vulgar. And grotesque. And an embarrassment to an otherwise halfway decent country.

If you’re like me, you desperately want to write this off as an anomaly. Surely this is just a temporary hiccup, right? Surely 2020 will bring us principled candidates who stick to the issues and treat one another with decency and respect. Right?

Well, I certainly hope so. But from my couch in the American Midwest, I’m not feeling very optimistic. As much as I might like to think that 2016 is merely a glitch in the system, I find myself continually coming back to the thought that this may well be the new normal. Politics in America may have finally hit its stride. A faltering, dreadful, humiliating stride.

Why do I say this? It’s simple really. I think we’re a country that would rather be entertained than informed. We don’t have the patience to listen to someone propose complex solutions to complex problems. We want tweetable zingers. We don’t value level-headed integrity. We want controversy and drama and showmanship. And whenever you have a nation that values such things, it’s inevitable that the political machinery will match supply to demand. In the end, we somehow manage to get the elections (and the candidates) that we want.

Protest all you want, but this is the very election we’ve asked for. And unless we make some significant changes in how we approach the political process, this election will be a pattern for our future.

All you have to do is watch a debate to see what I’m talking about. Heck, you can even have the TV muted (not a bad idea, now that I think about it), and without listening to a word the candidates are saying, you’ll see why our nation is doomed.

Have you noticed that all the debates these days are televised in split screen format? Why do you think this is the case? Why do the news networks think we need to see both candidates at the same time?

From my vantage point, the answer seems pretty obvious. Entertainment! CNN knows that we’re not tuning in to learn about issues. We’re not tuning in to gather more information before casting a vote. We’re tuning in to see eyes rolling and heads shaking and sparks flying. And the split screen gives us these things. It provides an ideal context for the straight-up theatrics we’re all seeking, the theatrics on which TV ratings depend.

It’s ironic if you think about it. Time and time again, the moderators tell the candidates not to interrupt one another. And yet the networks place them side-by-side on the TV screen expecting (hoping?) that they’ll do the very thing they’ve been strictly told not to. It’s almost like we want the whole thing to devolve into two people shouting over each other in a Jerry Springer-esque cacophony. And remember, this is America. If we want it, we’ll get it.

Is it any surprise that the “boring” candidates don’t last very long? Is it any surprise that less bombastic third party candidates can never seem to elbow their way into the spotlight? We live in a split-screen world, and we need candidates who are suited for a split-screen campaign.

Or consider this interesting little feature of a typical debate night: the ever-pressing question of who won. For the life of me, I can’t understand this. Literally within seconds of the final words being spoken, we’re bombarded with hordes of talking heads trying to sort out the winner and the loser. As if this were the entire point of exchanging ideas.

It’s not hard to see that in a culture such as this, principled politics will quickly get thrown out the window. It has no hope of survival. So long as our debates get reduced to who won and who lost, our candidates will by necessity have to resemble performers rather than true leaders. They’ll have to major in personality rather than policy. Such candidates are the only ones who can survive such a cauldron of competition where winning and losing are the only categories that seem to matter. There’s a reason one of the major political parties is being represented by a reality TV star.

As a case in point, take a guy like John Kasich. Regardless of how you felt about Kasich’s politics during the GOP primary, you have to admit that he presented himself as an intelligent, studious, reasonable man. When it came to the issues, he didn’t just give empty soundbites. He proposed thorough, thoughtful answers. And how did that go over with the American people? Well, I dare say that more people were making fun of Kasich’s haircut (which was admittedly bad) than actually interacting with his positions. That’s a tragedy. And yet in this strange, messed-up country, that’s how things work. It doesn’t matter if our pop singers can’t actually sing, and it doesn’t matter if our elected leaders can’t actually lead. So long as they say enough brash and ridiculous things to keep us entertained, we’ll apparently keep listening to them. And voting for them.

I’d like to think that this train wreck of an election will be the last one of my lifetime. But I doubt it. I foresee more on the horizon. What happens in 2020 if there are no email scandals? Or fights outside campaign events? Or alarmingly racist statements? I don’t know, and I don’t think I will know. Because one way or another, the political machine will make sure that we are entertained once again. And in order to be entertained, we need this nonsense.

We may be outraged at what this election has become. And rightfully so. But let’s not forget who got us into this mess. Until we start taking our job as citizens seriously and disciplining ourselves to be thoughtful participants in the political process, we’ll keep finding ourselves watching bad SyFy movies every four years. And regardless of whether it’s Mega Python or Gatoroid who comes out on top, we’ll find that in the end, all of us are in fact the losers.

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