“Has it always been this way?” the young, voting-age lad asked days after both our major parties’ national conventions. He stood outside the downtown library and looked truly puzzled.
“What way?” I asked.
“The Republican National Convention was pure WrestleMania. Don’t they understand we have serious things we could be doing to make life better for people? Are we voting for president or best actor?”
“The show must go on,” I said. “Back in April Trump told the Washington Post, ‘It’s very important to put some showbiz into a convention, otherwise people are going to fall asleep.’”
“He shouted his entire acceptance speech! Into a microphone! He actually shouted, ‘I alone can fix this!’” the young voter retorted before making his way into the library. “Was it always this bad?”
A worthy question, posed by an earnest young citizen, and meriting deliberation. Young voters today have been bamboozled, buffaloed, bludgeoned by spectacle like no preceding generation.
Acquiring political power is usually part spectacle, part substance. It’s concerning when a young voter wanting to cast a well-considered vote in his first presidential election cycle sees only the spectacle—or at least 90-percent spectacle. My best guess is the Congressional approval rating is higher than the percentage of substantive comments in political theatre that was the RNC. Approval ratings for our Congress has hovered at around 10 percent for a long time.
When did the shift from substance to spectacle happen?
The shift was already picking up steam by my first presidential election. In that election I cast my lot with one of the best presidents of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the boring low-spectacle campaign of Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 election to showbiz personality, all-around optimist Ronald Reagan. Even at 18 years old I couldn’t understand how we as a nation voted for an actor over the lifelong dedication, service and intellectual integrity of a Navy veteran and nuclear power engineer. (And I didn’t even like Carter because he boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics).
The balance between substance and style is dynamic and dependent on conditions, but I suspect 1968 may have been a kind of turning point. The Vietnam War, assassinations and rioting in the streets created a fitting background for two leading pundits to debate substantive issues in subdued tones at the violence-torn Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At one point, conservative intellectual icon William F. Buckley dropped the façade of political correctness and said exactly what he felt by telling liberal writer Gore Vidal, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamned face and you’ll stay plastered.” (“Best of Enemies” nicely documents the exchange and the lifelong feud between Buckley and Vidal.)
Of course, what the esteemed Mr. Buckley considered a mistake in 1968 appears to be a presidential campaign strategy in 2016. Despite his philosophical disagreements with liberals, Buckley would have been more at home with the style and production value of the convention in Philadelphia than the one in Cleveland: WrestleMania vs. Downton Abbey.
Now that the spectacles are over, most of us will be turning our attention to gathering information and thoughtfully considering substantive policies of each of the presidential candidates. This will include at least listening to Libertarian Gary Johnson.
We’ll be doing our homework.
And some are watching WrestleMania now and planning to vote for best actor come November. It’s understandable. Our political theatre is often heavy on spectacle, light on substance. After watching both acceptance speeches, it seems one party nominated straight-shouting Gary Busey as the face of their party, the flag-bearer of their policies, their best actor in a shallow talent pool. The other major party nominated a woman who has been studying her role and developing her character her entire life—the well-prepared, hardworking Helen Mirren.
It’s not really a tough call. I’m with her.