The problem with the soap opera that is modern American politics is that politics is not soap opera.
The object of the latter is entertainment through a daily, hokey maintenance of suspense. This necessarily requires the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, particularly when it comes to the lead characters. Depending on what improbable twists and turns the plot must take to meet the demands of day-in-day-out drama, the stars of the show slip seamlessly from villain’s to hero’s role, from incorrigible vice to transcendent virtue. Soap fans buy in because they know it is not real. It is, to the contrary, their escape from reality.
Politics is our reality. It only seems like soap opera because of the way it is covered: Right into your living room, day-in-day-out, celebrity journalists present the adventures of their fellow dramatis personae, celebrity pols. The journalists portray politics, moreover, as suspense, and not just such suspense as the news of the day may warrant by dint of its relative seriousness — an earthquake, the outbreak of a war, or the specter of millions losing health-insurance plans they were promised they could keep. The continuing suspense lies in the practice of politics.
A little more than 15 minutes ago, there were only three major networks and a handful of prominent national newspapers. The focus of this limited news-media universe was the events themselves.
Not anymore. With a plethora of news sources, with limitless space and hours of airtime to fill, events are now more like episodes of a long-running drama. Politics is the glue that holds the plot together. No longer is the story that millions of people are losing health insurance that President Obama guaranteed they would be able to keep. For the mainstream press, it is about how cleverly Obama can rationalize his lies, how adroitly can he revise what he’s previously said, how deftly can he turn the page . . . shifting the audience’s attention to the next episode — maybe immigration, maybe Iran, maybe the debt ceiling . . .
Politics as soap opera took hold in the Clinton years, and maintains its grip in our more perilous here and now. Bill Clinton was a lucky guy who got to live off the fat of the land: the broad prosperity of Reagan’s economic boom, post-Soviet unipolar U.S. dominance on the world stage, and plunging crime rates at home. New threats, such as the global jihad’s setting its sights on America, were just emerging; new time bombs, such as government’s extorting banks to grant mortgages to poor credit risks, were just beginning to tick.
Clinton’s personal corruption reduced the stature of the presidency and Dick Morris’s miniature populism — the president as champion of, yes, school uniforms for third-graders — reduced its gravity. The president trundled along from scandal to scandal, all unsavory but none consequential enough to threaten American security or prosperity. As he did, the media marveled not at how dissolute Clinton was but at how fabulous he was at lying about it. In previous times, gross fraud was a disqualifier for offices of public trust. Now, fraud and the dexterity to carry it off in the light of day — to look the press itself in the eye and lie with indignation — became admirable political attributes. The story was never the sordid facts of the scandal du jour; the scandal was merely a barometer for measuring Clinton’s survival skills.
Now, of course, we have another celebrity-in-chief whose left-wing orientation aligns with the media’s. Obama is a more ambitious and doctrinaire statist — one who didn’t come to Washington just “to do school uniforms,” as he admonished his staff — but one who lacks Clinton’s charm. As increasing numbers of Americans sense, the current president is more into inflicting your pain than into feeling it.
Yet Obama’s biggest problem is not that, for all his talk about it, empathy seems so alien to his experience. It is that the world has gotten far more serious.