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.