Politics as daytime TV

Robert Kuttner

October 22, 1991|By Robert Kuttner

AS THE writer Alan Wolfe has observed, America is a country where public issues have become private, and oddly, private ones public. This inversion degrades the quality of both our politics and our material well-being.

In our country, the proper subjects for intense public debate now attract only a narrow class of policy nerds. Are the rich getting richer and the poor poorer? Is the middle class eroding? Are the banks tottering? Can average people get health care? Are public schools a lost cause? Should we balance the federal budget? Extend unemployment insurance? Bored yet?

These matters profoundly affect ordinary people; they are issues on which the Democrats once championed average Americans. But much of the citizenry is so soured on politics that they've given up on the very idea that the political process, let alone the opposition party, might remedy such concerns. As a consequence, the status quo ideas and policies that have done such economic damage in the 1980s still dominate, by default.

Meanwhile, intensely private issues fill the public vacuum. Shall a woman chose to abort a pregnancy? May homosexuals serve in the military? Does God belong in the public schools? Can consenting adults look at sexually arousing material? This is the stuff of current American politics.

Elsewhere, older nations that once bitterly fought over such questions now leave them to private choice. America formally separates church from state; Italy does not. But in Italy birth control and even abortion enjoy de facto tolerance, while in America they remain politically explosive. In Europe, what goes on in the boardroom is a public issue; what goes on in the bedroom is not. The European press viewed the whole Thomas affair as the volcanic struggle of an immature nation still wrestling puritan demons.

Even worse, the American public debates these private issues mainly via pseudo-democratic avenues of participation -- through Oprah Winfrey, radio call-in shows, and superficial overnight polls. Evidently, there is a Gresham's law of democracy in which talk show populism drives out civic participation, and sex drives out political economics.

The legitimate question of whether the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had used his political and economic power to sexually harass an employee was decided, finally, in terms more appropriate to talk radio than to the U.S. Senate: Was Anita a hypocrite for using Clarence to advance her own career? Did she have a crush on him? Never mind whether Thomas actually committed the offense.

In the Thomas affair, there was a weird convergence of Howell Heflin and Phil Donahue. The medium -- television -- became the message. What began as the elevation of a widespread private shame into a legitimate public issue quickly deteriorated back into talk-show TV. All that was missing was Joe Biden rushing around the hearing room with a cordless microphone.

We pay a double price for this inversion of the public and the private. The real public issues about the condition of our nation are sidelined or trivialized. Our capacity to debate the real issues, make public choices and hold public officials democratically accountable, is debased.

At a time when the economic condition of most Americans has been sliding for nearly two decades, the Democratic Party has managed to position itself on the weak side of this divide between culture and politics. It has failed to vigorously champion the well-being of ordinary people. By failing to do so, it has given away its most unifying issue. And it has allowed Republicans to dominate by defining Democrats as culturally weird.

In a recent op-ed column that ought to chill Democrats to the marrow, former Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan used the character witnesses from the Thomas hearings as metaphors: "The straight-shooting Maybellined J.C. Alvarez (defending Thomas) . . . was the voice of the real, as opposed to the abstract, America," while "the professional, movement-y and intellectualish Susan Hoerchner," speaking for Anita Hill, was out of touch with most Americans.

If you read Hoerchner as a proxy for Democrats and Alvarez as a proxy for Republicans, you can grasp the inversion of American politics. In the Thomas affair and elsewhere, Democrats attempted to speak up for the economically vulnerable -- but bungled the job and came across as the party of the professional victim. Republicans, though their policies still suggest a country-club party, have become the symbolic champions of ordinary people, while Democrats are depicted as representing an ideological fringe and a cultural elite. And we have come to accept as normal both the Republican assault and the Democratic default.

In an age of debased and symbolic politics, Republicans now have the symbolic high ground. In Thomas, the White House found a black man whose actual views of affirmative action would set back economic opportunity for most blacks, but symbolically his critics were the lynch mob. Symbolically, Thomas emerged as the victim and Hill the assassin. Symbolically, Strom Thurmond, that old bigot, championed black folks without costing himself a white vote.

As long as truly public questions are off the agenda, as long as we take public discourse seriously only as a variant of daytime TV, this is the kind of politics we will get. And as long as Democrats lack either courage or conviction, ordinary people will continue to give up on both Democrats and on public remedy.

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