Monday, March 26, 2012

Reading: The outsourced party

In today's NYTimes, Kevin Baker has a real head-smacker of an argument -- the kind that, even though all the pieces of the puzzle have been sitting in plain sight for a few years (in some cases, a few decades), you don't see it until someone slides those pieces around. See? This fits here, and this fits here. . . .

Baker's ironic point is this: The Republican Party, for decades the staunch defender of industry outsourcing as a way to cut costs, weaken labor, and avoid taxes and regulations, without regard to how damaging its effects might be on the country as a whole, has become “the outsourced party,” turning the development of ideas, the screening of candidates, and the mobilization of voters over to entities it now discovers it can no longer quite control.
The Republican effort to rally every conceivable outside entity to the party’s cause was wildly successful. Again and again over the years, conservative policy institutes have armed the party’s candidates with intellectual arguments, while the conservative media barrage has blasted a way through to high office for even the most lackluster Republican nominees.

Yet increasingly this meant that the Republican Party was outsourcing both body and soul. Both what the party believed in and its ability to do the heavy lifting necessary to win elections was handed over to outside interests — outside interests that did not necessarily share the party’s goals or have any stake in ameliorating its tactics.

This has become suddenly and painfully evident this year. Party leaders may not have liked Rush Limbaugh’s disgusting attacks on a Georgetown law student — calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute” for advocating that insurance companies provide affordable birth control — but what does he care?

If the Republicans lose the election, it will most likely mean all the more angry conservatives tuning in and driving up the ratings for Rush and his fellow radio ranters.
Ideas? There are think tanks now. Agenda-setting? FOX News handles that. Candidate grooming and vetting? Endless sponsored reality-show debates serve that function now. Legislative muscle? K Street lobbyists get paid for that. Mobilizing voters? Talk radio. Campaign funding? A handful of single-issue billionaires can each keep their own preferred candidate in the race, no matter how long past the sell-by date. And no one in the old GOP establishment quite knows how to get the genie back into the bottle, even if they dared try.
Thanks to their inventiveness, Republicans have stumbled into the brave new world of American politics. From primaries to photo ops, from direct mail to voter suppression laws, the Republican party has almost always been the real innovator in electoral politics, usually leaving their slower brother, the Democrats, in the dust for at least a campaign season or two.

Now they’ve achieved the political equivalent of shuttering that foul old steel mill and shipping the hard work off for others to do while they dabble in these fascinating new derivatives. Now their candidates and their ideas are seen as so many junk bonds, and they don’t seem to have the wherewithal to make the party over from within.
Note that Baker's choice of terms is particularly apt. As Will Bunch points out, this is but the logical extension of allowing entertainment to blend with, and finally drown, our politics and news as a form of discourse.
Baker didn't mention the late 20th Century media critic Neil Postman, but this is exactly the world that Postman predicted and feared in "Amusing Ourselves to Death," that entertainment -- and entertainment values -- would eventually overwhelm politics. The 2012 GOP race has been the epitome of this -- interest in the race soared when the candidates help weekly TV debates that were frighteningly like a reality show, and that interest has plunged now that the "reality show" is over. And life or death issues like a possible military action in Iran are discussed the way a talk radio host would discuss them.

And a Rush Limbaugh really does get the last laugh -- he stays in the radio while the rest of us amuse ourselves to death.
The hook that Postman uses to launch his book is this riddle: Why has America spent over half a century fearing that the brutal oppression of Orwell's “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would come to pass here, when it should have been obvious that Huxley's “Brave New World” -- a parody and retort to the optimism of the utopian novelists of his time, in which Huxley imagined a world of infantilized, materialist, overmedicated narcissists -- struck so much nearer to the realities of our age?

Baker's article is going on the Readings list at the right.

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