Saturday, August 01, 2009

Waiting for Stillson
Stephen King hasn't written all that much about politics in his fiction, but as with any great storyteller in just about any genre or medium, he has a tremendous intuitive grasp of psychology. In The Dead Zone, he presented a character named Greg Stillson, a salesman turned politician whom the psychic protagonist comes to understand will be elected president and begin a nuclear war. Within the course of the story, Stillson gets as far as the House of Representatives, winning office on the strength of a highly emotional, not to say irrational, political persona that fed on voters' grievances and anger. (The hero ultimately ruins his political career when, in a failed assassination attempt, Stillson picks up a toddler to use as a human shield and a photographer captures the image.)

Of course we need not turn to fiction to find examples of politicians who leveraged public fear, frustration and anger into advancement. Joe McCarthy is probably the most famous American example, though he's hardly the only one. To some extent, they all do it--but in America, such appeals as the sole or main message of a candidate have never quite managed a majority. What I worry about now is that we're approaching a tipping point at which a Greg Stillson type could really come to power.

Why are we more susceptible to this now than might have been the case fifty or a hundred years ago? Three reasons.

First, I fear we are about to be faced with a truth we've never before had to confront: the American system is no longer equal to the problems that confront it. From addressing global warming to moving the federal budget back toward balance, we don't have the stomach to do what must be done--and we don't even really understand the problems. But more than anything, we refuse to accept the notion that you can't get something for nothing. Maybe this is the fault of leaders who refuse to speak to the public as adults. Maybe it's an inevitable consequence of a political system that actively and harshly punishes any actor who proposes a policy that would trade short-term pain for long-term gain and consistently allows small, focused interests to have their way against large, unfocused and inattentive majorities. (As Matt Taibbi recently put it when discussing health care, "Our government doesn’t exist to protect voters from interests, it exists to protect interests from voters.") Maybe it's the culture itself, a culture now mostly driven by advertising messages that relentlessly promise only ease and pleasure.

Second, the mass media has gradually revealed itself to be, from a civic perspective at least, much more an instrument for harm than for good. I've been reading this long David Halberstam profile of CBS News from the mid-1970s, in which he traces the development of the division from its heyday in the 1940s and '50s through the Watergate period, explaining how the new medium of television both shaped and was shaped by the political scene. What Halberstam describes is a mutually parasitical relationship between the top echelons of political and corporate power; can anyone argue with a straight face that, on balance, this hasn't gotten worse, rather than better, over the last 30-plus years?

(This isn't to say that there are no honest and independent voices out there, or that the Internet hasn't furnished them a platform and an audience. But for every Dan Froomkin, Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, there are probably a dozen Jake Tappers, David Gregorys and Mark Halperins--and they have much bigger megaphones, much better access, and much more margin for error on factual or even stylistic grounds. As one example, Sullivan has taken far more crap for his continued inquiries about Sarah Palin's pregnancy on his blog than Gregory did for essentially offering Mark Sanford a free shot to explain himself on "Meet the Press." For more on why this is so important, just check out Greenwald's stunning post today about the end of the feud between Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and Bill O'Reilly of Fox News--that both broadcasters essentially were silenced by their corporate bosses, for reasons having nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with corporate profits.)

When Joe McCarthy was wrecking lives and driving public policy in ever more twisted directions in the '50s, Edward R. Murrow stood up to him--first by inference, then directly. As Halberstam's account details, top CBS executives first took credit for Murrow's journalistic bravery--then made sure that no on-air personality could ever put him- or herself in a position to do anything like that again. Today, the two guiding principles of news coverage are access and "balance": as Greenwald details better than anybody, top correspondents and reporters see their primary responsibility as protecting their sources, and their second duty as "reporting both sides." It's impossible to imagine a high-profile reporter reacting to the transgressions of the Bush administration--from the misinformation leading up to the Iraq War, to the outing of Valerie Plame, to the U.S. Attorney firings and the systemic violations of the Geneva Conventions--with the righteous outrage of Murrow to Tailgunner Joe and the Red Scare. (As the Obama administration has continued many of the worst Bush policies, the acquiescence of the media has reminded us that its true bias isn't liberal or conservative, but simply deference to the powerful.) The best it gets is that one or two skeptical reporters for a dying newspaper might raise a question or two in a story buried on page 18.

Whether you consider Barack Obama a hero and Sarah Palin a villain or vice-versa, they're covered in largely the same way: as personalities rather than exemplars of a worldview or champions of a set of policy priorities. When Greg Stillson comes, be certain that he or she will be presented in the same manner. Nobody of any note, outside from probably a blogger or two who will quickly be dismissed as an ideologue or an eccentric, will offer a fact-based view to offset the tabloid-type coverage.

(At this point, I consider Palin a failed prototype for the Stillson figure whose emergence I fear. Her political appeal at the national level was entirely grievance-based: an incoherent roar of anger and fear and pain at a changing national landscape, a blind reaching out for villains to string up. She fell short, at least to this point, in part because she mismanaged her own public image through a lack of self-discipline and anything remotely substantive, and in part because we in this culture still judge attractive women more harshly than we do attractive men. The next person in this mode will have learned from her mistakes, and will be ready for the Katie Couric interview.)

The third reason I worry that the stage is set for a true demagogue in the presidency is that Americans at every point on the political compass are grasping for answers and certainty in a world that increasingly provides neither. We feel that things are far beyond our control: the forces that control our lives and can wreck them at any point are almost impossible to identify, much less confront. To an extent, this is true--our institutions are far beyond accountability, and some of them (the Federal Reserve, anyone?) are almost beyond explanation. The committed citizen can educate him/herself--that's the great benefit of mass media--but probably not to any particularly useful end, and very few will even do that when there's always some more pressing responsibility or easier entertainment option. That a large minority of Americans believes, in the face of all the evidence and even almost unanimity from political and cultural elites, that Obama wasn't even born in this country suggests just how powerful a hold irrational ideas can have when they provide an emotional answer.

Human nature and history alike suggest that when things get bad enough and someone eventually comes to provide such answers and certainty, he or she will find a very receptive audience.

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