We are not ourselves. We no longer know what it means to be American. We are letting our secretive government fleece us. We’re broken and we are on the wrong path, at a tipping point, we’ve lost our way. From Star Parker to Sarah Palin, from Roger Ailes to Glenn Beck, the message that the Media Right is riding is that we are a country that has forgotten itself, forgotten its exceptionalism, become too complicated, gotten too far from its values; and because of this lapse of self-knowledge, we’re about to hit dire straits. While it’s a strong, simple and compelling (and rather Biblical) narrative — we must change our ways now or soon perish — some major plot points are missing. Who are “we” for instance? And whose values are being forgotten? What is American exceptionalism and how or why should we get back to it? While the Media Right works to stage a self-help intervention for our failing country, few are talking about what really ails us with detail. This “we are going down” talk serves a distinct political purpose though; as Tony Judt writes in a new, lengthy essay,“The Disintegration of the Public Sector” for SSRC:
Today, we are encouraged to believe in the idea that politics reflects our opinions and helps us shape a shared public space. Politicians talk and we respond—with our votes. But the truth is quite other. Most people don’t feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance. They are told what to think and how to think it. They are made to feel inadequate as soon as issues of detail are engaged; and as for general objectives, they are encouraged to believe that these have long since been determined.
The perverse effects of this suppression of genuine debate are all around us. In the US today, town hall meetings and ‘tea parties’ parody and mimic the 18th century originals. Far from opening debate, they close it down. Demagogues tell the crowd what to think; when their phrases are echoed back to them, they boldly announce that they are merely relaying popular sentiment.
Which is why Parker’s plea for legislators to take account of public opinion rings so false. She claims a unified desire — a distinctly conservative, anti-government, yet hawkish one:
Polling on the health care bill that Democrats pushed through against public sentiment remains negative. And latest polling shows voters expressing more confidence in Republicans than Democrats in dealing with terrorism, immigration, the deficit, and the economy.
But what about overall vision?
Roger Ailes, president of Fox News, knows something about the American people. Tapping into his sense of who Americans are and what they want, he built Fox into the nation’s top cable network.
In the most recent tracking poll on health reform done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more said they’ve gotten their information on health reform from cable TV than any other news medium, and among the cable TV sources, Fox finished first.
The “we” Parker is addressing is not all Americans, but a political and mediated subset of Americans: Fox viewers for instance. Parker, Ailes, Beck and others are caught in the circular diagnosis of a broad, contrived problem — we are on the wrong track — and they have prescribed a self-serving cure: erode the public space.