SOLOMON: The Performance Art of American Politics

It was fitting that the announcement of Academy Award nominees came just days before the climax of President Clinton's trial in the Senate. The top contenders for an Oscar were unable to compete with the intrepid actors inside the Beltway. For the past year, the dramatic capital of the nation has been Washington, not Hollywood.These days, what we call "politics" is some mangled form of performance art. Journalists often sound like drama critics as they review the work of politicians on the national stage. But the roles have little to do with illuminating human truths; instead, the process relies on prevarication and deception.Scripted events like photo-ops and televised speeches are shadow plays, diverting attention from what occurs far from media spotlights. It's no secret that elected leaders get where they're going in tandem with big-money interests that provide hefty campaign contributions. But news accounts rarely describe the links between large donations and specific government policies.Many politicians have been able to meet the current standards with glib appearances and modern flourishes. After several decades of television, it's not enough for politicians to smoothly recite lines -- they have to be quick about it.Between the Nixon-Humphrey race of 1968 and the Bush-Dukakis contest of 1988, the average length of a sound bite on network TV news dropped from 43 seconds to nine seconds.Familiar ideas can be conveyed in brief or at length. Simplistic truisms can be reinforced in a snap. But it isn't possible to effectively dispute widespread assumptions and prejudices within a few seconds. Sound bites are perfect for demagoguery. "Sound nibbles" are even better.If politicians are apt to abuse language, then all too many journalists are functioning as enablers. Reporters are drawn to pithy comments that ring with succinct authority; so are producers and talk-show hosts.As a practical matter, the shared lexicon of politics and journalism supplies the raw material for continuous fashion statements. In both professions, the verbal attire tends to be cut from the same cloth.Despite the abundance of news about politics, the overall media culture is partial to grand spectacles and personalized melodramas that dodge underlying political issues.Even when partisan fevers are raging, show business has a way of taking precedence. In contrast to societies where clashes of economic interests are on the table and on the public agenda, the pseudo-political obsessions in America are largely evasive.I remember speaking with some Mexican journalists covering the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Those reporters commented that the convention was very interesting -- but, they said flatly, it was not a political event. In Mexico, as in many other countries, obvious conflicts between economic classes are central to ongoing political debate.During the last decade, such conflicts have been swept under the national rug, with high-profile progressive Democrats moving from restraint to quiescence. In 1992, at Madison Square Garden, mainstream journalists beamed as pro-corporate "New Democrats" took formal possession of the party's ticket. In 1996, at the Chicago convention that renominated Bill Clinton, the party was in lock-step.Meanwhile, during their primary campaigns and national conventions, GOP stalwarts have done little more than calibrate their conservative positions.Many journalists have added to the de-politicizing of politics by focusing on the personalities of leading politicians. For the past year, enormous quantities of print space and air time have been devoted to analyzing the individual tendencies of movers and shakers in Washington.This is what has become of "politics" in America: a frozen non-debate on matters of substance. Political actors, on Capitol Hill and in the White House, dominate a national arena that routinely seems devoid of discourse.Scripted performances can be entertaining, whether in a theater or on the nightly news. But merely watching the nation's political dramas unfold is a lousy substitute for helping to create the future.As members of the House and Senate take curtain calls for their roles in the impeachment drama, we'll be hearing them say how eager they are to finally get back to work on solving the country's problems. And we can expect a lot of journalists to echo those sentiments.But the real solutions won't come from the customary actors in media-defined dramas. It's time for people in the audience to move beyond passive acceptance.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist.


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