If only Neil Postman were alive to see our politics today! Honestly, I don’t think he would be surprised. What we have seen in the life of our political discourse, how presidents present themselves publicly is just the fruit of a seed planted long ago. Since this book was written in the 1980s it is no surprise to find the quote from Ronald Reagan, “politics is just like show business.”
Why Politics is Like Show Business and Not Athletics
Postman muses on this at the start of the chapter. Athletic ability can not be easily hidden or faked. You either win or you lose. You hit the ball or you don’t. The rules of the game are also clear. Yes, I debated with my friends who the greatest quarterback of all time was. But the names were few and their accomplishments clear. Excellence in sports is easily recognizable. Excellence in politics is a different animal because you can be excellent at pleasing the crowd while at the same time doing nothing for them or even positively harming them.
Politics as a TV Commercial
Postman argues that this is the fundamental metaphor for politics today (126). First, the commercial as we know it today works against capitalistic principles. Capitalism at its core is “based on the idea that “both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest”(127). He goes on to say that a free-market system requires consumers who know what is good and good for them. Rational consumers require sellers to produce something of value. Rationality and mutual self-interest are central. But advertising began to abandon rational propositions about their products in the early 1900s. When TV commercials came in the 1950s any semblance of rationality was obliterated because you didn’t have to claim things when you can show things. He concludes:
According to Postman, the problem here is that commercials have trained us to think that “all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast…through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry”(130). This is easily seen in the political ads on TV. Commercials don’t give time for nuance. They make us suspicious of complex language and thought, they seek to convince us that all that is needed is to buy this product or elect that candidate.
Political Celebrities and Image Politics
Postman makes a distinction between being well known and being a celebrity. Political figures may have been well-known but from hundreds of years, they were not Hollywood style celebrities. Postman traces a shift back to the 1950s with a senator going on a game show. He cites more examples noting that by the 1970s people were no longer surprised to see politics and Hollywood mixing together. By the 1980s it was expected. (I would argue that today it is required.)
So what? What’s the problem with political figures going on TV and popular media? Well, the main problem is that TV (and it’s children) do not allow for critical thinking. The “debates” we see, political ads and so on do not communicate meaningful content that inspires careful reflection. It is all about image. Postman admits that presenting a particular image is not a bad thing on its face. The problem is that “on television, the politician does not so much offer an audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience”(134). Postman then quotes an ancient philosopher, “Men almost always make their gods in their image.” Using TV politicians seeking to be gods “refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them be”(135).
The problem is that we assume because we can see a politician we know who they are. In reality, TV makes it impossible to know who they are because through TV politicians are trying to be like their audience. Postman concludes,
…just as the television commercial empties itself of authentic product information so that it can do its psychological work, image politics empties itself of authentic substance for the same reason.Page 136
The Cost of Political Show business
All this has a price. The price is history and the sense of our place in it. Remember that Postman believes TV to be the outworking of the telegraph and photograph, not the printing press. Like the telegraph and photograph TV is instant information largely devoid of context. There is no need to consider anything beyond the present moment. Now is all there is and ever will be. If now is all that matters then history is useless, irrelevant…and boring. If now is all that matters you don’t need a memory you only need a mirror.
At this point, Postman brings us back to the competing visions of Orwell (authoritarian state) and Huxley (pacified public). Orwell’s fears of a government that would destroy history books is something of North Korea, not America. No, our situation is decidedly more Huxleyan considering what we live with:
Seemingly benign technologies devoted to providing the populace with a politics of image, instancy and therapy [which] may disappear history just as effectively, perhaps more permanently, and without objection.Page 138
Given the above, you can see why Postman would have been disappointed but not surprised by the politics of recent years (stretching back to the Clinton years). Even now more than a year out from the 2020 presidential election we are hearing the cry, “THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIME!!!” Just like the last one. And the one before that. And the one to come in 2024. That statement itself makes Postman’s point. Only one who is living exclusively in the present moment would take such a statement seriously. A few years back I joked online about the antics of politicians, “If they won’t serve us at least they can entertain us.” I didn’t realize that had been true for a long time.
So what is the answer here? Well, I am not getting into partisan politics because that is not Postman’s point. He is talking about how we think about politics. Most of the thinking online is rank emotionalism. Social media excesses verify Postman’s analysis completely. If all we do is get our information from one side then we aren’t informed nor are we making it better. I’m not saying everyone has to watch Fox News and MSNBC. I don’t watch any of it. We do need to consider that those we disagree with have reasons they believe what they do. If they are just some avatar online then it doesn’t matter. But if it is a person we care about then it would be good for us to find out why they believe what they do. We very likely will still disagree in the end and that is okay.
I think we have to commit ourselves to decrease our engagement with online politics. We need to read more books. Long-form lectures and discussions on YouTube are helpful as well. But nothing beats having face to face respectful conversations with people we care about. Who knows? If we listen we just might learn something.
What do you think? Is blending show business with politics helpful or harmful? Does it matter or was it a necessary development? You can contact me here.