If politics is lost, how can we find it again?
US writer Joe Klein's new book - Politics Lost - is funny on the dumbing down of political life, but not so forthcoming with solutions.
At first sight, Joe Klein’s Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialised by People Who Think You’re Stupid looks like a provocative critique of today’s focus group-obsessed, consultant-driven excuse for politics. Klein, a political commentator for Time, believes we no longer have individuals of sufficient strength and character to challenge the climate of professional number-counters. He points out that while some mavericks still occasionally speak against contemporary wisdom, they remain a rarity. However, in concentrating on a few bogeymen who have apparently degraded politics, Klein misses the point that there has been a broader collapse in political belief.
He suggests, refreshingly, that rogues are more fun well-behaved politicians, citing Woodrow Wilson and his ‘imperious passions’; he also says he takes the side of the ‘fox and not the hounds’ in all of America’s post-Watergate scandalettes and circuses. He believes politics is trivialised because there are too many ‘goody-goodies’. And yet, while these points are well made, they, too, trivialise the problems we face today.
Klein laments the end of citizenship, and blames its decline on television. While some politicians tried to retain their autonomy when speaking publicly, such as Nixon, the vast majority have become transfixed with soundbites and how they look and sound on the box, he argues.
The book then gives an empirical step-by-step map of the key protagonists on the road to today’s sterilised politics. Pat Caddell, a former Democratic Party pollster, is an early contender, as is Reagan, with his movie star charm – both of these individuals helped to offset real debate, says Klein. But the real players are the behind-the-scenes advisers. From Sears and Gregg, to Finkelstein, Helms and Ellis, this reads like a who’s who of campaign management. It makes for an interesting historical account of various figures involved in US politics – but Klein’s ‘whodunit’ approach to reinvigorating the body politic does not work.
The entire journey of Politics Lost becomes about small stories of a bunch of over-marketed statistics-crazed dudes, and the book never deals with the broader and far more important international trends that helped to reshape American domestic politics. While Klein tells us that the attempt to find a new ‘liberal ideology’ was unsuccessful, it is never really situated in its full historical political context – the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the idea that there might be an alternative way to the market.
Klein does like to inject doses of irony and humour into his writing. Sometimes it works well, especially when he reminds us how Clinton spent $5 million on Christian radio adverts in the South, and revisits the story of those consultants who advised Al Gore to play down his most passionate concern: the environment. (They must be kicking themselves now that Gore has made a splash with his environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth.) Many of the anecdotes are funnily told, but they can also be a bit depressing: ‘They had so much data, they couldn’t possibly analyse it all… They had focus groups three or four times a week. They had 16 different categories for white women…’
Leaving aside these entertaining and extravagant stories about recent US politics, what does Klein put forward as an alternative? He suggests there is a need for politicians to challenge us: ‘If a politician is not going to upset me, they will not get my vote.’ Fair enough, but that is hardly a solution; he seems unable to locate the heart of the problem. What is worse, he seems to share some of the prejudices against ‘ordinary people’ that he accuses politicians of harbouring.
At a recent public event I attended in New York, Klein told the audience that, as we looked like well-educated elite voters, ‘I am sure you will understand’ the political problems he was discussing. Now, he said, we need to convince ‘the others’. This notion of ‘others’ looms large in the liberal imagination as an explanation for all that has gone wrong in American politics. Even Klein and others’ attacks on the ‘hegemony of the television age’ and how that has given rise to today’s politics of soundbites and spin is really about TV viewers, who are seen as passive and willing consumers of a dumbed-down agenda.
For all their talk of political change, many liberals today are too busy blaming ‘the others’ – presumably those living in the South and the Midwest – for not being as enlightened as the elite.
Klein wants politicians to refuse to be ‘performers’, to be honest and real. But the trouble is not so much an absence of honesty (although I’m sure that’s a problem in politics, as it has long been), but rather an absence of any notion of how to change and improve the world. Taking another leaf from the technocratic pretend-politician’s book, Klein readily admits to using the tactics of fear-mongering to win support. At the NY meeting he said, ‘I use fear – that they are gonna “draft you” – to get people to show some interest in what is happening.’ But if there is anything we need less of today, it is the idea that we should be scared of everything.
Klein is a talented and humorous writer, with a great deal of experience. It is sad, then, that he ends up blaming the symptoms of today’s problem of politics – consultants and the media – for the cause: the general belief that humans are self-serving, untrustworthy and not really capable of meaningful change. Until we challenge this view of ourselves, we will be doomed to more and more expensive campaigns by technocratic and pragmatic politicians who have little to say about how to change things for the better.
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