The Corner


Politics as Entertainment

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks after being awarded the 2017 Liberty Medal at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 16, 2017. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

One of the arguments in my book is that politics is becoming a form of entertainment. I don’t mean this as a glib comment about the unseriousness of politics, but as sincere observation about the serious role played by entertainment in our brains.

In How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes:

“When we watch TV, we stare at a shimmering piece of glass, but our surface-perception module tells the rest of our brain that we are seeing real people and places. … Even in a lifelong couch potato, the visual system never ‘learns’ that television is a pane of glowing phosphor dots, and the person never loses the illusion that there is a world behind the pane.”

The rules of the entertainment realm are different than the rules of the real world. At the movies, we root for the bad guy to get beaten, even tortured. We want the heroes to win and the villains to suffer. But the rational parts of our brains understand that the morality of entertainment shouldn’t be brought into our day-to-day lives.

When we don’t like a character on Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, we might yell, “Just die already!” But most of us understand that’s not something we should say in real life about real people. Well, part of my thesis is that a combination of the breakdown of civil society and the rise of social media is turning politics into a form of entertainment. I bring this up because for the last two days I’ve been seeing people on Twitter essentially shout at the screen, “Just die already” about John McCain.

Now, I get that there are people who dislike — even hate — John McCain. I certainly understand why many conservatives have problems with him. But this is grotesque and a pretty good illustration of how politics is becoming simply what we yell at our TVs.

It’s also hardly the only example of the way politics are changing before our eyes. Today, West Virginia Republican voters may well nominate Don Blankenship for no ostensible reason other than the fact our politics needs more entertaining characters. Blankenship is a mumbling, sinister, bigoted, human incarnation of Boaty McBoatface with at least some blood on his hands. He also has the best chance of any of the GOP candidates of losing in the General Election, which is why Donald Trump has asked West Virginia voters to please vote for someone else:

So this is another one of those issues where Trump and the “establishment” (as if these things are really that different anymore) say with one voice, “Please don’t do this. It is not in your interests.”

On the other hand, Blankenship spent a year in jail, calls the Senate majority leader “Cocaine Mitch!” and looks like Lumbergh stole his stapler. How can facts and self-interest compete with that? So, I guess Jaily McBigotface 2018 it is!

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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