Ben-Meir: Political performances

Born to Run

This week’s presidential health care summit felt decidedly unreal. While White House officials and Congressional leaders from both parties gathered for a seven-hour discussion on President Obama’s signature domestic initiative, little of substance was said; the summit was, as so many have remarked, political theater. At first, I wondered if part of this perception was that I was watching the summit on YouTube, with the familiar controls uncannily situated beneath the faces of the country’s most powerful public figures.

Then it dawned on me: The problem was not that I was watching on YouTube, but that the summit was designed for YouTube. The same is true for the parties’ weekly addresses. This week, Obama repeated the same tired talking points, while the Republicans featured Senator Tom Coburn (looking avuncular, in a red Mr. Rogers sweater) insisting that his party would love to work with the president, provided that they can do so without supporting anything he proposes. Both read their lines like they had been rehearsing them for months. They had.

We live in an era, regrettably, when information’s presentation has surpassed its content in terms of importance. Our Facebook pages produce flat, meticulously cultivated representations of our characters. Text messaging and Twitter reduce communication to the bare essentials, expressed in a unique dialect. The Internet has allowed an extreme fragmentation of information, but severed the essential links connecting one field of knowledge to another. Most troubling, however, is the intrusion of the aestheticizing of information into the public sphere. Our civil discourse has been damaged by the ubiquitous vanity of style over substance. Literature long ago embraced postmodernism, and government is beginning to catch up.

Politics has always been performance, but the performance has usually been a gloss on the surface of actual governing. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were serious policy discussions, despite their theatrics. The health care summit, though, was performance as governing. Some speculated that its true purpose was not to ease the passage of health care, but to put a face on its failure. If so, the millions who watched bore witness to the birth of government as signifier.

The 24-hour news cycle, aided and abetted by the Internet, has transformed information into an aesthetic object and given those who distribute undue power. While the gatekeepers of information have always wielded tremendous political influence, the primacy that information-as-object enjoys in modern lives gives today’s censors greater control than is healthy.

The Republican Party has been quicker to embrace this trend than the Democrats, making them both more politically successful and less qualified to govern.

The White House was not wrong when it called Rush Limbaugh the leader of the Republican Party; Limbaugh and Glenn Beck profoundly shape our politics by treating fact as a malleable commodity. At the same time, Mike Huckabee has his own talk show on Fox News, and Sarah Palin has signed on to the network as a regular commentator. The former governor of Alaska also understands her power to alter the public discourse by way of Facebook broadsides, where she favors reckless anti-factual statements like “death panels.” The Republican Party understands that information-as-object can be shaped without regard for accuracy. But few in the party understand that, though their presentation will likely be perceived as true, there still exists a truth external to perception.

Tort reform will not end the health care crisis in this country. Barack Obama’s health care proposal, for all its flaws, is more conservative than Richard Nixon’s, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the moderate plan offered by centrist senators in 1993. Coming across as reasonable partners in governing during a Web-cast summit is not equivalent to actually trying to solve the country’s problems. And to pretend otherwise is to reduce public discourse to gibberish.

The Democrats are not without their showboats and windbags, but their failures spring from a different source. They are not accustomed, yet, to the decay of meaning. Polls show that the public largely disapproves of the health care bills, but is extremely supportive of the policies the bills contain (with the exception of the individual mandate, which in light of the bill’s expansion of access, is necessary to prevent premiums from skyrocketing). The Democrats see these numbers as proof that once reform passes, the public will come to love it. But they do not understand that it is possible, given the way we currently treat information, to hate a bill while loving everything it does or to reject a politician while agreeing with everything he stands for.

When information comes in disconnected, manipulated units, logic becomes impossible.

This week’s charade of a summit should lead people of all ideologies to reconsider how we talk when we talk about politics. When one sees politics as a game, the impulse to dichotomize winners and losers becomes irresistible. One possibility is to foreground policy over personality. Another might be a modified Fairness Doctrine, which would resist the fragmentation of information by guaranteeing equal time to opposite viewpoints. But ultimately, it rests with us to remember that some things are true, and some are not. Information needs to be communication, not an object. We must shift the power from those who hold the microphones back to those who have something to say.

Ilan Ben-Meir is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

Comments

  • Rick554

    While watching this summit, I was struck by just how vacuous the Democrats and Barack HUSSEIN Obama really are.
    As is normal, the Dems and Obama each had a health-care fairy tale to expound on ad-nauseum. Louise Slaughter’s tale of the woman using her dead sister’s dentures was the high-light !
    As is normal, the repubs had charts, CBO facts and real-world answers to health-care problems. Obama accusing Paul Ryan of using a copy of the Democrat’s 1200 page health-care scam as a prop was beneath his Office.
    The Obama/Democrat blab-fest, as well as the year-plus “debate” has wasted our country’s time and energy, which could have been used to more productive ends. The best part of the last year though, was that it kept Obama and the Dems from doing any further harm to our country and minimized the damage that these left-wing radicals could impose on us.

  • AMG

    Mr. Obama’s healthcare bill is over 2,074 pages long.

    The US Constitution is 6 pages long and all we have needed to run the BEST country in the world!

    Why is Mr. Obama in such a hurry to put our country in debt? And if such an urgency for healthcare, then why does it take effect 8 years in the future?

    I am all for healthcare reform and overhaul…but not a bill that will put us into such debt that our National security is at stake!!!

    We should collectively say…KILL THE BILL!!!!

  • AMG

    DEMOCRATE=LIBERAL=PROGRESSIVE=SOCIALIST=
    MARXIST!!!

    As the government leans further to the left…our country leans more to the right!!!

    Thanks Mr. Obama for:

    -destroying the Clinton Machine

    -killing off the Kennedy Dynasty

    -destroying the Democratic Party before ur eyes by having Dennis Moore, Evan Bayh, and Byron Dorgan quit with dozen more following their lead.

    -making Harry Reid’s poll number almost non-existent

    -exposing liberals and progressives for what they are…liberals tax, borrow,and spend, that wont protect America, government take over of our economy because…in their own words…Americans are too stupid to know what’s best for themselves,

    And finally, thank you Mr. Obama for renewing our patriotism and bringing back conservatism to America!!!

    I rather a vocabulary inept President Bush (who by the way graduated from Yale, ha ha ha) than a teleprompt reading socialist!!!!!

  • @1

    You speak of harm to the country, but yet our current deficit has much to do with Bush-era taxcuts and war spending. You put Obama’s middle name in capitals as if to insinuate some underlying unamerican character. It’s these kinds of jabs that do nothing but harm. The costs of healthcare don’t go away if reform fails; healthcare needs reform. Now I think Obama and the Democrats have had terrible execution this year, from selling healthcare to the public to coming to a consensus within the party.
    Btw, socialist, marxist; do these words have any useful meaning anymore?

  • AMG

    @#4

    Absolutely….because the words socialist and marxist stand for governments that have failed or are failing.

    We must align ourselves with governments that actually succeed and steer clear of ideals (ei..Mr Obama’s socialist agenda) that clearly fail.

    We must have a clear vision for our future and be ready to stand and fight for the freedoms we enjoy today.

  • y09

    These comments remind me of why I’m never living south of the Mason-Dixon line again.

  • y12

    did you watch the same summit I did?

  • Yeah

    Socialized medicine has proven successful, and popular among the vast majority of citizens, in every advanced country. Also, if having universal health care is equivalent to socialism, then your claim that all governments with it are failing does not ring true. Most European countries are doing no worse than we are in this economy. Also, the Congressional Budget Office assessment of the bill shows it will not put us in debt, but will help rescue us from huge future deficits. Also, it will save lives. If you’re really worried about debts, why don’t you oppose pointless foreign wars, which also lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, put great stress on our soldiers (look at the number of Afghan War vets who have committed suicide), and cost a trillion dollars.
    Also, Obama is far from the first president to use a teleprompter. It’s hilarious that conservatives keep attacking him for this. Really, he’s not that great of a speaker, but the content of some of his speeches, including ones written by himself, is pretty good.

  • Y ’09

    YDN folks,
    Many of the above comments are basically spam and trolls. There are lots of valid arguments to be had about the Health Care debate. But these comments are not substantive and not related to Ilan’s column. As per the instructions directly above the “Add Comment” form on the website, these comments are not “on-topic” and many of them border on abusive.

    Please don’t approve this sort of comment on the YDN comments board.

  • Jaymin

    @AMG

    Obama = takes a shower = socialists take showers = MARXIST!!!!!

    Oh my god, America, don’t you see!? The Leninist Barack Hussain Obama/Osama Hitler socialists are going to destroy this country and eat the children of us REAL Americans and I’m not just a hack who repeats mindless non-nonsensical comparisons from lunatic teaparty posters.

  • BR ’10

    I agree with #9.
    This is the best column I’ve read this semester. The comments have nothing to do with it. Can someone regulate which comments are published?