The politics of the United States in the last few decades has become so opaque, it is hard to see what goes on, beyond the banal superficialities. Competitive commercial television, an American institutional invention, is hardly the most suitable keeper of any nation’s historical and political heritage, nor a source of accurate collective political memory, and without political memory it is not possible to understand the present or anticipate the future. Yet most modern Americans are compelled by circumstances to comprehend the national or state-level politics of their enormous variegated land of 300 million people only through the very coarse filter provided by commercial television.
Television obviously demands passivity, dissipating a viewer’s ability to reason about or reflect on any information being offered. A newspaper report “Plane crash kills 120” in a front-page column, causes the information to be absorbed in context along with the rest of the day’s news. If the radio says “An aeroplane crashed today, and all 120 passengers aboard are feared dead”, the same event is felt through the invisible newsreader’s voice, the listener being left to imagine the awfulness of what happened. But for TV to report the same event requires pompous self-conscious studio-anchors, helicopters at the scene, interviews with weeping relatives, and instant analyses of the crash’s causes, all under a banner of “Breaking News”. The average viewer is left not so much sympathising with the victims as feeling enervated and anxious about air-travel and the world in general — besides being left ignorant of the rest of the day’s happenings.
In reaching mass-audiences with advertisements of commercial products, TV quickly obtained the general surrender of radio in American homes, though radio still controls what modern Americans hear in the time they spend in their automobiles (and they spend a larger fraction there than any other people). Newspapers signalled their abject surrender to TV by “dumbing down” their front-pages with large photographs as pathetic reminders of yesterday’s TV events, or headlines that sound racy, sensational, glamorous or with-it. Given the transient nature of all news and expense of printing it on newsprint, actually reading newspapers (as opposed to looking at advertising supplements) has become in the age of TV a minor middle class indulgence, although the editorial pages of a handful of “national” newspapers remains the last refuge of serious political discussion in the USA and elsewhere.
American politics filtered through commercial television has caused all issues and politicians, whether national, state and/or local, to tend to become like products and brands available to be bought and sold at the right price. Yet American television also produced a serious reaction to its own banalities by starting in the early 1980s news-reporting and analysis on “Public Television” and also on “C-Span”. “Public Television” (as opposed to commercial or cable networks) produced what came to be known as the “MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour”, which set the benchmark for all political news and commentary in the USA and indeed across the globe to this day. C-Span took the unusual step of sending television cameras to silently record all political events, especially the seemingly least significant and most tedious of legislative committee meetings or political speeches, and then broadcasting these endlessly 24 hours a day along with very dry political analysis and comment. Both provided a little (“highbrow”) sobriety to the otherwise drunken political culture created by American commercial television. Along with a small number of newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, MacNeill-Lehrer and C-Span and the odd Sunday morning news-show on commercial TV, gave America’s politically conscious classes their access to information and analysis about their own country and what was being done in its name in the wider world. At least that was so until the 2003 attack on Iraq — during which acceptance of the US military procedure of “embedded reporters” ruined America’s traditions of a free press. Since 2003, growth of political coverage on the Internet especially via “blogging” has caused more candour to penetrate American politics and to explode the dissimulations of the “mainstream media”.
Besides politics via television, the other main factor affecting the attention-deficit disorder, short time-horizon and lack of perspective and depth afflicting modern American discourse, has been the rigid time-table of a Constitution written for a long gone era. Every even-numbered year is an election year in America, and that election is held in the first week of November. Hence on 7 November 2006 America will go to the polls, as it did in November 2004 and as it will again in November 2008. Each requires the entire lower legislative house to be newly elected.
Now two years may have been a long time in the late 18th Century when the US Constitution was written, and transport and communications between the Capitol and the new States was hazardous or time-consuming. But in modern times two years are over in the blink of an eyelid. Members of the American House of Representatives must then spend their time either talking about public money and how to spend it (as only they are authorized to do), or private money and how to earn it in order to stay elected and be able to talk about how to spend the public money. Inevitably, these two activities get confused with each other. The two year term of the American lower house may well be the shortest anywhere in the world, and may deserve to be doubled at least.
The upper house elects two senior politicians from each of the 50 States (regardless of its size or importance) for a 6 year term each, with one-third of the house returning to face the electorate at each of the biennial national elections. These 100 Senators at any given time have often constituted a fine deliberative body, and, along with the executive governors of the larger States, the pool from which America’s presidents and vice-presidents get to be chosen. Yet the Senate has also often enough palpably failed in its “advice and consent” role vis-à-vis the American President — whether in the matter of America never becoming a member of the League of Nations because of Senate isolationism despite Woodrow Wilson having invented it (something the British and French found so bewildering and frustrating), or the modern Senate caving in to the jingoism unleashed by the father-son Bush Presidencies only to then say “Oops, we’ve made a mistake”.
Another fundamental institutional problem at the root of modern American politics today is the lack of separation between the Head of State and Head of Government. This not merely causes people with the wrong ambitions and abilities to want to become President (because they lust in juvenile fashion to fire cruise missiles or fly onto aircraft carriers), it also causes the business of serious governance to frequently stop getting done because of endless paralysis between the President and Legislature. Churchill perspicaciously observed: “The rigid Constitution of the United States, the gigantic scale and strength of its party machinery, the fixed terms for which public officers and representatives are chosen, invest the President with a greater measure of autocratic power than… by the Head of any great State. The vast size of the country, the diverse types, interests and environments of its enormous population, the safety-valve function of the legislatures of fifty Sovereign States, make the focussing of national public opinion difficult, and confer upon the Federal Government exceptional independence of it except at fixed election times. Few modern Governments need to concern themselves so little with the opinion of the party they have beaten at the polls; none secures to its supreme executive officer, at once the Sovereign and the Party Leader, such direct personal authority.” There is an argument to be made for the American President to become more of a constitutional figurehead representing the thoughtful will of the Union and all the 50 States, while an American Prime Minister comes to be elected by the Legislature as a more subdued, sober and competent Head of Government. It would be a healthy development for America’s domestic and international politics, and hence better for the rest of the world as well.
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