Sunday, February 01, 2009

Do We Want a Nation that Aspires to the Best or the Worst?

There are two kinds of democracy. One in which the people are encouraged to aspire to choose the best, the other in which populism drags down the standard to the lowest common denominator.

The very term "popular culture" once an indictment, now a definition of American culture, highlights the problem. Do we really want a popular culture based on the lowest common denominator tastes, or a culture that gives us something to reach for. So too our political culture asks, do we want great leaders who can truly move us forward, or average leaders who talk down to us and come off as friendly and non-threatening.

Do we want to be a nation defined by the lowest common denominator, or by a striving toward greatness?

When you consider the choice, it's really no surprise that Obama is the afterbirth of popular culture, or that his backers relied heavily on shaping, exploiting and manipulating popular culture in order to elect him. The manifestation of a serious candidacy by someone like Obama could only have occurred after American culture and values had been drastically dumbed down, generation after generation. After most people could no longer recognize what was wrong with the idea of an unqualified racist candidate running for the highest office in the land backed by little more than posters and glib slogans.

Obama has exploited the political system of an unserious political culture. In times past, large numbers of Americans would gather to listen to serious issue oriented political debates that would go on for hours. The modern equivalent of the Lincoln-Douglas debates however are televised appearances in which both candidates focus on short position statements loaded with hefty doses of buzzwords and cliches ideal for the short attention span of a television viewing audience.

Obama could not have weathered a serious debate in the Lincoln-Douglas style without becoming a laughingstock. He did however manage to stumble through a few debates with a Republican opponent who was determined to be as inoffensive as possible. He didn't win them, but neither did he manage to lose them obviously enough to showcase his inability to speak intelligently on any serious topic.

Of course this dumbed down political culture could not exist, but for the fact that serious issue oriented politics in which voters came drawn by the larger issues of the day, gave way to Gimmee Politics, in which people participate in politics in the hopes of gaining personal benefits. As government consumes more taxes and spends even more than it can tax, the giant feed barrel of government attracts people who lack the knowledge and information, or even the desire to obtain it, to participate in the political process. With any talk of poll or literacy test banned, there is no bar to the lowest common denominator determining who will run the country. A state of affairs that unsurprisingly rewards lowest common denominator politics.

And so we come from Lincoln to Obama, self-made man to self-confessed fraud. And in doing so we travel a long road that reveals just how low our political culture has fallen.

As popular culture has come to define political culture, the Saturday Night Live skit now replaces a reasoned debate. Campaigning on the covers of celebrity magazines counts more than an actual evaluation of the candidate's platforms. Fame trumps all other values.

Obama's omnipresence in popular culture is simply testimony to his inability to maintain a serious conversation. His base of support is rooted in exactly those sorts of people for whom a clip of Obama girl or an iconized Obama poster is far more compelling than talking about the future of Social Security. Vote for him because he's cool, because he exemplifies "Hope" and "Change", because he's sort of black, because he seems young, because he has a great presence on the internet, and because your friends are doing it. That is the kind of corrupt political culture, popular culture has given us by dumbing down American culture to its lowest common denominator.

To understand just how little seriousness we attach to voting, in the United States the drinking age is set at 21, and the voting age at 18. Which means that we trust people to decide the future of America, whom we don't trust to drink a beer. Can you say Obama Generation?

Allowing American culture to become degraded, to channel the worst elements, appeal to the lowest tastes, to set no standards and hold no values but those of tolerating everything-- is what led us directly to not only Obama's rise to power, but to a political class that cannot make the hard decisions and is unable to do what it takes to defend America when it is under attack.

And the problem is only getting worse. With each generation, American culture becomes more degraded. A purely profit oriented marketplace relies on shocking increasingly jaded consumers with new lows, while pandering ever further to their laziness. As the internet decentralizes the marketplace, there is no longer even any mechanism in place to stop the cultural elevator from dropping further and further. And the generations that are produced by such a culture don't want to stop it, until they have the chance to see what their children are up to. By which point it's already too late.

The question we have failed to take seriously for too long, the one that so many politicians use as a cliche in their speeches, is do we want to be a nation that aspires to the best, or is willing to continue dropping down further to a new low and a new lowest common denominator each and every generation. Are we willing to fight to make America better, to work toward a culture that is elevated rather than degraded? The best way reverse the dumbing down of America is to work toward that, in the home and the public sphere, on the internet and off it. We can be a better nation, if we choose to be.


Lemon said...

Experience doesn't matter at all unless your Sarah Palin , then it matters a whole lot!

Dan O'Brien said...

While I hate to bring the subject up, since I was bothered by the vehemence with which other Obama supporters attacked Sarah Palin, the same "dumbing down" effect was apparent with her as with Obama. I will concede that she was the vice presidential candidate, and so less important, but it was her "popular" appeal that invigorated McCain's campaign. She appealed to the less educated, because they felt like she was just like them. How's that for aspiring for the worst?
What you say may be true, and probably is, though I believe you greatly exaggerated the severity for rhetorical effect. There are many other signs of this, however, and by focusing only on attacking Obama, you have made it so that any discussion that results will be divided based on support or opposition to Obama. I suppose that was your intention, though, as this article really does seem to be more focused on Obama himself rather than the problem that it is supposedly about.

Karmasura said...

One question:

"So too our political culture asks, do we want great leaders who can truly move us forward, or average leaders who talk down to us and come off as friendly and non-threatening."

Do you mean friendly and non-threatening to enemies? Or are you advocating a tough perfectionist as a president

Sultan Knish said...

no the effect was there with both McCain and Palin. McCain insisted on dumbing himself down, and Palin was chosen for rather cynical reasons, and marketed in a populist way that helped give the media an angle for destroying her

Sultan Knish said...

to Kamasura, I mean friendly and non-threatening to voters.

Keli Ata said...

In retrospect I wish I would have supported Mitt Romney more. He had an amiable enough quality about him and good raport with voters; he struck me as someone who would have creamed Obama in a debate.

Romney was a very confident public speaker, and seeing he was a minority of sorts because of his religion (Mormon) any verbal attack or strong debating skills used against Obama wouldn't have been perceived as an attack on Obama's race.

It would have been perceived as a fair fight.

Notice how Obama faltered in debates against Hillary Clinton--she got in his face, interrupted him, and no one in the media accused her of being "nasty" as they did whenever McCain made critical remarks just as referring to Obama as "that one."

Sultan Knish said...

the flip side is that with Romney the media would have had much less hesitation in going after him directly and personally, in a way they didn't quite dare to do with McCain since they were afraid that ripping into a war hero would backfire

An AP clip like this from the primaries gives us a hint of what that would have been like

besides considering the Mormon thing, the media would have begun running a thousand hostile stories about Mormons, and you can imagine the Saturday Night Live routines already

it would have taken someone like Huckabee who had the ability to be truly bulletproof, unfortunately Huckabee was also a scumbag and to the left of even McCain, and he wouldn't have won battleground states, particularly in the midwest or Florida

Sultan Knish said...

of course had the real McCain shown up, the guy with a meanspirted sense of humor, who was willing to say absolutely anything, and risk it all... the debates would have looked quite different

instead we got the "my friends" and "bipartisanship" milquetoast

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