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Politics and the Infotainment Problem

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I spent one particular evening a few weeks ago with several hundred other students crammed into a common space, squashed into corners, sitting on steps, on arm rests, drinking the free beer, scarfing down the pizza and hummus, typing away on laptops and iPads, (writing papers? live-tweeting? purchasing Obama sweaters for their dogs?) and talking non-stop to the people around, attention half-focused on the enormous screen in front of them.

The scene resembled a Super Bowl party, except it was Election Night and Wellesley College students were following the people we wanted to empower with the rule of law, not the people whose field goal expertise we admired. The music CNN was scoring the election results to sounded like a variation on the Jaws theme, or like the ominous drumming Fox Sports uses to announce updates in scores.

And I wondered: How different, really, was watching the election as opposed to watching American Idol?

Throughout the election, we saw the contestants perform in a high-pressure atmosphere, with moderators and judges (the post-debate pundits). We argued about their respective merits and weaknesses over Twitter and Facebook, on fan sites and blogs and newspapers. We identify ourselves by "Team Mitt" and "Team Barack." We analyze the stories of our contestants' past in order to understand what motivates them, what drives them to ultimate glory.

The "infotainment" phenomenon has been much discussed in popular forum, from Neil Postman's provocative Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) to Aaron Sorkin's newest endeavor, The Newsroom (HBO), where the fictitious newsroom staff takes a stand against the horrors of contemporary political coverage.

It doesn't trouble me that our entertainment has come to resemble our political activities. It's more funny than dangerous to hear the gravitas with which American Idol or Survivor or America's Got Talent contestants talk about their enterprise, as if they're making history by being the most famous person to sing a remixed version of "Hey, Soul Sister."

But it does trouble me that our political activities have come so much to resemble entertainment.

When this happens, we pay attention only to those events or trend which seem most exciting, or most unusual, despite the fact un-interesting, un-exciting trends can be the most significant ones. We tend to cast our politicians into antagonistic roles too easily. We have no motivation to consider the precedents and nuances of political change; we look for the showy and the flashy, the easily digestible fact and the quick-fix explanation, despite the fact that none of these things might be true or helpful in the long run.

Perhaps one, not very original solution would be to accept that the political process can be boring: mind-numbingly, horrifyingly boring. There is a reason CSPAN sends us to sleep. Legislation is designed for the working out of bureaucratic details, not for Greek tragedy. We shouldn't run away from that fact, from the fact that the real, honest drama of politics can be wrapped up in whether to fund new highways at the expense of arts education and how much, where, and when.

And if we turn away from the illusion of an ever-exciting, ever-dynamic political process, perhaps there's a bigger story in front of us.

It is the story of our national character, of who the American people are becoming, of what we respect and what we fear. It is the story of the women I was with at the Election Party, who will break records and cross boundaries and work very, very hard to show what difference they can make in the twenty-first century.

It's a slower story, one that unfolds in lifetimes rather than Tweets, one that requires patience and attention to detail in order to appreciate. It's a story that is difficult to tell in the space of a one-hour news show, or in the unrelenting cacophony of a 24-hour news network. It's not a story that easily lends itself to dichotomous distinctions of liberal and conservative, red and blue.

Yet this is the story that matters, and it's the one we should be watching.