As Jim Lehrer, after 90 minutes of deadly evenhandedness, brought the first presidential debate to a conclusion, I couldn’t escape the fancy that this political campaign was a new television show called, Who Wants to Be a Presidential Survivor? I’m not even sure my idea is original, so frequently have Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor been drummed into my head. Besides, many commentators have noted that our political parties, since their conventions began, seem to be making a fictional mini-series. The conventions were TV specials where Republicans pretended to be what Democrats usually pretend to be and Democrats pretended to be what Republicans usually pretend to be. The convolutions have been positively baroque.
The millionaire and survivor shows are particularly adept as metaphors for our political life. First, it is all about money; not only the corporate money that funds both parties, whose select representatives have mysteriously seen fit to exclude Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan from their networks owned by their pet corporations, but the money by which we citizens, all supposedly salivating for free rides or tax cuts, are enthralled. There will be no talk of generosity with respect to our poorest citizens or sharing the bounty of our prolific economy with the poor of the world in this campaign. No one is interested in that, except perhaps Nader. The bottom line (an appropriate allusion) of this political season is a variation of the last campaign: It’s the money, stupid.
Secondly, this election is about surviving on real TV, a ruse so contrived that the only apt comparison could be a group of yuppies pretending they are on a remote island eating grass and rats while the cameras grind on. We endure a culture of faux information about faux reality.
Aristotle and Aquinas both reminded us that appetite follows cognition. Whoever informs us, forms us and our choices. We are in an information age, and those who control information control the options. Enter the networks and corporations again. They know the whole game of advertising is about product recognition. If we never see an alternative to what Nader calls Gush and Bore, we’ll never think of choosing it.
Even the information we have, however, about Bush and Gore is contrived. Gore has to appear nice, not rude. Bush has to appear tough and presidential. (In the midst of the debate, it became clear that no one had coached them to appear grown-up.)
Like Survivor, where the winner was the one who could deceive the best, so it is with our political-commercial-media culture. This campaign, with its contrived, controlled debates, seems based on the proposition that the less we voters know, the better off we are. Whichever candidate is most successful in concealing his real intentions and avoiding serious confrontation with issues is crowned as the survivor. How else make sense of the fact that in the first debate, the most common response to the moderator’s questions was to answer something not asked?
While this charade was going on, a group of dissenters was making plans for the debate to be held at Washington University in Saint Louis on Oct. 17. This O17 group has as its motto, Where’s the Debate?
There is something to that. Although this protest group is as multifaceted as most million-whatever marches on Washington, the organizers know that real issues are not treated in the so-called debates. Real persons, even the real candidates, are not allowed to speak. The canned paragraphs and clever zingers were all that got through. So deep was the pretense that the audience was not a real audience. They were solemnly ordered not to react to the speakers. The two candidates seemed to be in a shared isolation booth, confined to listening but not talking to each other. (Is this why they communicated in sniffles and sighs?)
Ralph Nader was not merely prevented from sharing the stage. He was barred, ticket and all, from even attending, lest some reality might intrude on the ruse.
No one will represent the American laborer, although labor funds the Democratic survivor candidate. No one will challenge NAFTA or GATT in the absence of Nader and Buchanan. No one will represent the unborn with anything more than moralisms, although there is supposedly a pro-life candidate. No one will represent those on death row.
Is there anyone who will ever ask Al Gore: You constantly say you are for a woman’s right to choose.’ Choose what? Anything? Infanticide? And if you mean only choices about her reproductive life,’ will you ensure every woman the right to choose abortion for sex-selection? To avoid a child presumably marked by some feared homosexual gene?’ Why?
Is there anyone who will ever ask George Bush: You claim Jesus as your political inspiration. What might he think of capital punishment, which you so devotedly practice? Do you think Jesus might expect some commitment to the poor of the world? Do you think he might have more to say about money than promise a tax break? If these are not religious things, then why do you claim Jesus as your political inspiration’?
It is piously said that a vote is a matter of conscience. But what good is a conscience if it is not informed? And what ethical good is a vote if you don’t know whom or what you’re voting for?