Reality and tabloid television are a social virus that has infected the American body politic. In the 1980s, "I'm with Stupid" was a put-down. In 2010, it is a campaign endorsement.
America has become a reflection of its television culture. Vanity, ignorance, stupidity, and greed are in vogue, which changes the culture, and therefore the landscape of American politics. The people we used to shake our heads at on "The Jerry Springer Show" are now running for office.
Politics have polarized because the visual junk food that we cram into our brains continues to polarize us.
In pursuit of the almighty rating, the television industry has elevated the extreme fringes of its audience: The welfare moms abusing their children, the cheating husbands or boyfriends with a secret, and teen girls with a drinking, self abuse, or pregnancy issue are sport for the rest of us. Salacious tales of multiple marital infidelities; DNA daddies; Big Women Who Love Little Men.Dangerous jobs and the men and women who do them. All on the next Maury.
Cheap television begets cheapened culture. We have become a society where the traditional losers and the marginalized are today's stars and heroes. Countless hours of reality and tabloid television have numbed us to stupid.
Cable television's need to fill thousands of hours of programming time, along with the upward spiraling costs of dramatic television, opened the door to "reality" and tabloid television.
News and entertainment were separate. Anchors like Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman and Charles Kuralt were not telegenic news hunks like the current crop of wading pools, but were respected for their knowledge and their gravitas. We watched the news to be informed, and being "trusted" was earned through years of best practice, not a barrage of CNN's self-aggrandizing Anderson Cooper commercials.
Then TV sent in the clowns: Jerry Springer, and MTV's "The Real World." Tabloid shows like "Extra" and then TMZ moved salacious supermarket gossip rags on to your TV screen.
The news business devolved with the advent of USA Today, news lite, that dumbed-down the newspaper. It positively came off of the rails when Rupert Murdoch gave Roger Ailes the keys to Fox News. Its polarizing force galvanized an opportunity at MSNBC to create its liberal opposite, and the war to choose sides in the news media began in earnest.
Jon Stewart is "the most trusted news man," even though he runs a satirical news program, because the practice of journalism has been so badly broken by shrinking newspapers and standards-free television. Likeability has replaced gravitas. The crowbar that the 4th estate used to drop into political spin in the "regular" news is gone.
Today, our news is entertainment with a little information sprinkled in. Politicians' pitches, particularly Republicans, who bolt to Fox if they are challenged, are seldom scrutinized anymore in the TV news world.
From CNN's Anderson "Semi-Tough" Cooper to the mind-numbing "Fox and Friends," our primary source of political and social information has realigned itself with the rest of the slate of debased television programming available in the U.S. Content abroad has taken a hit from the Murdoch empire too. On the whole, though, there is much more literate and well-informed news to be found outside of our borders than one finds here.
Is it any surprise that we have social dysfunctionals and wackos not only running for office, but succeeding enough to get to the general election?
Archie Bunker, the lovable bigot of Norman Lear's "All in the Family," was a parody of ignorance and intolerance. In a remake today, Archie would be a Tea Party cultural hero, standing up against the forces that are tearing his rear-view-mirror of a vanished White America apart.
The GOP has leveraged the Unreal World, and reached into the freak show of Libertarian loons and Tea Party extremists to produce candidates for the 2010 mid-terms that even Karl Rove can't control.
We've gone from the guy you'd want to have a beer with to the woman you'd want to cast a spell with. We have your Nazi-lite politicos and "Whites Only" sign advocates. We are moving rapidly from stupid to dangerous.
The party is pushing these extremists through the political system because they turn out angry voters, useful when you're not in power. The truth is that Republicans, bereft of solutions to the financial problems and runaway debt which they largely created, don't have any more clue how to dig us out of the Grand Canyon that the Bush Administration excavated any more than the Democrats do.
Fox News has added a liberal, and that will be the only time that word applies to Fox, dose of gasoline through its punditry and propaganda to give these aspiring anti-politicians voice.
The GOP's gamble is that they will be able to get this amalgam of anarchists to either move towards more moderate positions or get them under control. It will only be a matter of time before the Tea Party extremists turn on their masters.
Many of the House candidates really only want to throw a big monkey wrench into the machine and watch it break down, their loyalists back home gleefully cheering them on with "Burn baby, burn!"
The punditocracy passes off the Tea Party fad as a reaction to the economy, or discontent with Mr. Obama's policies. It is something much more profound than that though.
It's not the political system that's broke, folks. It is the whole damn country. Pick a side, any side. Beck or Maddow; O'Reilly or Olbermann; Stewart or Hannity.
Personally I think we should throw off the sham of propriety further! Put Iott on Springer: "I was a Naughty Nazi." Get Linda McMahon and Richard Blumenthal in the ring for a Smackdown! Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons in a spirited game of Quiddich at Hogwarts!
After all, this election is more about entertainment than governing. We're not acting like adults, so our politicians are joining in the fray. If the culture acts more grown-up, maybe our politicians will too.
My shiny two.