When critics mourn American politics’ increasing nastiness, the usual suspects include the media’s headline-driven hysteria and polarizing black-and-white approach to news, talk radio’s demagoguery, and the blogosphere’s viciousness. Others note the scramble for relatively few swing voters in a divided society and this election’s high stakes. Yet culture counts too, especially popular culture. Today’s no-holds-barred, decadent culture encourages a sensationalist and indulgent politics.
While conservatives love to blame the amoral and liberal media, America’s hedonism is a joint accomplishment, rooted in the American dream, intensified since Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. This anomaly is one of conservatism’s great blind spots. The prosperity Reagan helped unleash triggered a wave of materialism; the national revival Reagan celebrated spread an epidemic of individualism and libertinism which has weakened the nation’s social and moral fabric. Liberals and conservatives each see themselves as more virtuous than their opponents. Yet neither has a monopoly on morality; personal virtue does not correlate with political views. As Sarah Palin’s family makes clear, rates of pre-marital sex, divorce, or even trashy movie-watching do not correspond to the overused red state versus blue state paradigm.
Amid the loud, lurid carnival that constitutes so much American popular culture, with so many distracted by shopping 24/7, politics must compete with modern America’s burlesque for attention. In a world of caricatures, with too many consumed by the desire for goods rather than for “the good,” politicians feel pressed to lead by slinging simplistic slogans rather than confronting complex realities. As the stock markets have tumbled, both nominees have offered facile postures not thoughtful solutions.
While cultural forces feel overwhelming they are not immutable. Unfortunately, most entertainers, journalist, and politicians go with the partisan flow rather than standing against this polarizing tide. But consider Jon Stewart’s impact in 2004 when he confronted Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN’s “Crossfire.” “Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” Stewart demanded, calling Carlson and Begala partisan hacks reducing every political conversation to combat. CNN soon cancelled the show. Alas, we have to reach back four years to find someone standing up so effectively against the toxic partisanship. If more influentials followed Stewart’s example, politics would improve.
A politics that minimizes clashes, seeking the public good, requires a vigorous, romantic faith in America’s democratic experiment. Americans need to restore some of that old time civic religion, that confidence in America’s virtue and in this collective enterprise known as the United States. Structurally, the country also needs some pressures promoting centrism to counterbalance the media and partisan pressures to polarize. Creative leaders and organized citizens groups must tap into that spirit of American nationalism at its best, renewing a sense of collective mission as Americans celebrate their individual freedoms and prerogatives.
George Washington himself taught that the spirit of enlightened moderation, a culture of reasonableness, does not only depend on the Commander in Chief. Citizens in all democracies – including Canada where only 59.1 percent chose to vote this month – must take more responsibility for what we collectively are doing to our politics, our culture, our country, ourselves. The escapist combination of partisanship, cynicism, and frivolity which defines too much contemporary Western culture invites flights from responsibility; the privileges of citizenship, the needs of our time, invite – and demand -- the opposite. We all must begin finding our inner moderate. We must reward muscular moderates who lead from the center. We must repudiate those who through vitriol, demagoguery or mockery divide, polarize, or distract from important issues at hand to attract our entertainment dollars or score some cheap political points.
Citizens in a democracy get the leadership they deserve, for better or worse. If we, collectively, revitalize the center, our presidents and prime-ministers will become center-seekers; if we demand the best of our leaders, we just might get the best leaders. As the new president helps the nation heal, let us hope that he brings out his inner moderate, the promise from the spring of a new politics that defies the usual cultural and political laws of gravity in America.