“There may be more beautiful times, but this one is ours.” So said Jean-Paul Sartre, and it feels disconcertingly apt at this juncture in time, what I conjecture will become a very brief blot on the passed over pages of tomorrow’s American history books. In fact, I’m beginning to think there may never be a less beautiful time than the frenzied decade we’re stuck in now, marred as it is by political gridlock so stiff a penny couldn’t slip through. Worse, it’s election season, and all the once dormant creatures in Washington are stirring from an uneasy hibernation, fresh-faced, blood-thirsty and ready to prowl.
It’s actually a harder business than it first appears, living off whatever scraps of fat you could scavenge in the warmer seasons. I’ve heard some animals travel more than five miles to find that first bite to eat.
But back to politics, and the spectacle that even the most politically impassive American can’t help tuning into every now and then: the 2012 GOP primary. I’ve always wondered, when does something less beautiful become just plain ugly?
This past Saturday night, ABC News held the election’s 11th debate — or 12th, depending on who’s counting — which attracted the attention of over 7.6 million viewers. The first since Newt Gingrich’s surge in the polls, the spar became the most-watched debate thus far, beating out a late-September FOX News/Google debate in Florida (6.1 million), an early-September MSNBC/Politico debate (5.4 million) and some earlier back-and-forths on CNN (just over 3 million).
More importantly, however, is the startling fact that these numbers are almost double those of the 2008 primary. What could it mean? Either the disgraceful condition of Uncle Sam has finally shocked us average joes out of our machine-made apathy or these Republican cranks have got something even a dapper John F. Kennedy in 1960 didn’t have. Either way, it implies a curiosity in the outcome of a presidential primary unseen since — well, just unseen.
But frankly, none of that seems possible. Hell, save for the news — and even that’s a bit circumspect — I can’t remember the last time I picked up the remote control with the conscious intent of educating myself on the perils facing this country. And so as I always say, when things don’t make sense, you’re in too close. Find the fringe and ride it. In other words, close that brain-dead New York Times article I linked to and come up for air. It was only good for the numbers, at any rate.
There’s another hypothesis I’d like to enter into the marketplace of ideas on this subject, and it comes from an observation that’s really nothing new. In fact, it’s ancient. And it’s why we plop our sleek, flat-screen TVs in the smack dab center of our homes for the rest of life to circumscribe: here in America, it’s the entertainment, stupid.
The real question we should be asking ourselves at this point in time isn’t why are more people tuning in, but why are less people tuning out? What do we as a nation watch on TV the most? And then, of course, why?
Be forewarned, the answer is disturbing.
In 2010, American Idol once again took the title of most-watched TV show in America. And, on the heels ofSunday Night Football, Dancing With the Stars placed a close third. Apparently, a significant majority of the population enjoys watching people perform a task they have scant experience actually doing in their real, professional life. And then judging them. And then voting for them.
It’s a disturbing analogy, and what it inescapably comes down to is that these debates are entertainment. These candidates are, in every sense of the word, entertainers. This primary election is — more so than its predecessors — turning into another amusing TV show. If there’s one thing the analysts have gotten right this time around, it’s that whoever happens to put on the best performance will win the prize.
Which means we’re betting our futures here on a bunch of clumsy actors auditioning for the biggest part of them all. And so the final question: do we take the gamble? Who knows, but there’s a whole lot more than $10,000 on the line.