In a fit of self-importance—or perhaps it is despair—the media has pounced on Jon Stewart for stepping out of the studio and into the public square. Some veil their criticism as concern for Stewart’s career. Others savage him for crossing the line between news and entertainment.
Like some rendition of Brigadoon, one has to wonder what world these critics are living in. Twenty years ago—give or take a decade—Ted Koppel interviewed Rush Limbaugh on Nightline. In response to Koppel questioning whether he—like Steward today—was crossing a sacred line, El Rushbo retorted, Ted, let’s remember, you and I, we’re in the entertainment business now.
Religion. Politics. News. Entertainment. If the line was blurred for Rush a few decades ago, it is now gone. When Glenn Beck stood on the Washington Mall in August and pronounced the next Great Awakening, he was bringing all four together, with himself firmly placed at the epicenter. Those who suggest that Jon Stewart crossed a line should open their eyes and behold the new world.
No one questions whether Glenn Beck is in the business of entertainment. Or politics. Or news. Nor should one question the same for Sarah Palin. Beck and Palin stand at the cutting edge of a democracy that is being subsumed into popular culture, and they understand well the seamless flow between news and entertainment, religion and politics. Beck has been in the ratings game for longer than Sarah. She spins one-liners with the best of them—her riff, How’s that hopey, changey thing workin’ out for ya? is viscous and humorous at the same time—but Beck has a trained ear for when one argument has run its course and it is time to develop new material.
The ones who don’t learn and adapt are the ardent followers. Whether in the guise of Reagan Democrats of the 1980s, the Perot voters of the 1990s or the Tea Party acolytes today, disaffected American voters are easily seduced by politicians who channel their anger and provide succor through promises of lower taxes and easy fixes. The rhetoric of false prophets and entertainers alike can lure them into the public square, ready to point fingers at all the sources of their pain.
But they never want to look into the mirror.
Check the record. With promises of cutting waste, fraud and abuse, and pointing the finger at welfare cheats, Ronald Reagan offered the promise of cutting taxes and reducing the size of the federal government. The Reagan administration succeeded in cutting taxes, but never introduced a budget to Congress that reduced spending. Despite all of the familiar arguments about the revenue growth that ensued, the greatest legacy of the Reagan years was the political lesson that tax cuts buy votes, while there is no meaningful constituency for cutting budgets beyond old school Republican bankers sipping a single malt at the New York Athletic Club.
In the three decades since the Gipper recast the rules of the game, the Republican Party has become the party of tax cuts and the Democrats the party of spending increases as the key argument to their constituencies. But neither party feels any obligation to take the painful steps necessary if they are to pay for the promises that they aim to deliver.
To suggest that Republicans have abandoned their brand is not an idle claim. Since 1980, Republicans have controlled the White House for 20 of 30 years. During that time, Republicans have routinely cut taxes, while never once proposing a budget that would pay for them. The Congressional Budget Office recently observed that the Medicare Part D program passed by George W. Bush will add more to the federal deficit over the next decade than the combined cost of the stimulus, healthcare and TARP legislation—to say nothing of the wars and tax cuts—yet the power of brand still leaves Republicans as the party of fiscal conservatism.
The past three decades offer ample evidence that there are no pure players in this debate. Not the Republican Party that lost its fiscal bona fides decades ago. Not the Democrat Party that in pursuit Wall Street largesse became the handmaiden of accelerating financial deregulation that culminated in financial chaos. And certainly not the American Family, those of all faiths and political persuasions who bought into the silly shibboleths of the new economy, and chose to lever up rather than hunker down as they faced stagnating real incomes.
Yet Tea Party acolytes remain enthralled by those who are selling them a bill of goods to build their own ratings, their electoral prospects or their speaker fees—with little regard for whether they are leading America further down a path of cynicism, and contributing to the further dysfunction of a political system that seems incapable of addressing the real and deepening problems that we face. The plaintive cry “Don’t let the Government get its hands on my Medicare,” might be apocryphal, but it highlights the vacuousness of a political movement that is built on deliberate denial by Americans of their own responsibility for the straits in which we find ourselves. As Pogo said, We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Today, as the economy lies in tatters in the wake of financial crimes and misdemeanors from Wall Street to Main Street, Americans remain reluctant to confront and admit their own complicity in the mess. It was tens of millions of average Americans who violated every rule they were supposed to have learned in kindergarten about living within their means and not borrowing too much. Today, these same Americans who bought too much house and borrowed against too many cards, now want to point the finger at the politicians and decry their profligacy.
The anger and fear that Americans feel as they gather to protest the unfairness of the world should be tempered by their own complicity in buying the same bill of goods, year after year. The truth is that we did not hold our politicians accountable because we did not want to have to choose between consumption and savings. We wanted more now and more in the future.
And compounding that anger and that fear must be a healthy dose of shame for what we have wrought. But rather than facing up to our own culpability, we have become even more determined to lash out at the other that must have created this mess.
After all, it can’t be our fault, because we are Americans. We are the noble citizens of the greatest nation in history. Our ethical conduct and fiscal prudence is beyond reproach. We know this to be the true because Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and a raft of other politicians and pundits tell us so.
And we are too happy to believe them, because to do otherwise, and to accept some measure of responsibility for the world of our making would too hard. And for that, we should feel undying shame.