Lee Siegel gets it right in today's Journal. As he argues, the Republicans are currently winning the new culture war because they have "grasped a new, virulent strain of democracy". As he argues, it's the model invented by Mark Burnett, the creator of the "chastised ambition" reality tv show "Survivor":
"Authority must be humbled before it is allowed to lead, or to lead again."
Exactly. Politics has morphed into a reality television show in the sense that it is now a public spectacle of humiliation. We got a sneak preview of this show with Bill and Monica -- but in 2008 Political Survivor has gone mainstream. Thus John Edwards' public shaming. Thus Hilary's endless humiliation. And now the two (or is it three?) final contestants face off to determine who will win this sado-masochistic ritual in collective humiliation.The election, then, will be determined by which candidate copes most effectively with the ordeal of public humiliation:
Authority that is pre-humbled, as it were, has the tactical edge. JohnMcCain's tale of ordeal as a P.O.W. in Hanoi doesn't only demonstrate his heroism and patriotism. It portrays his humiliation and the shattering of his ego, as Sen. McCain himself has stressed. The terrible image of Sen. McCain being beaten without mercy in some filthy torture chamber is an image of powerful authority -- a national politician, a United States Senator -- being made to bend to the higher power of malevolent necessity. It is an image that feeds contemporary democracy's leveling maw.
As Siegel suggests, it's an unfair contest. The problem is that the Republicans know the rules of this new game, but the Democrats don't. Thus McCain's decision to pick a VP candidate who has neither a political record nor any political accomplishments. Palin is willing to make a complete idiot of herself on national television and acknowledge her perfect ignorance of world affairs. Obama, meanwhile, is still playing politics by the old, pre Political Survivor rules:
Sen. Obama still struggles with the sin of pride, he tells us with his confident grin and his air of perfect poise. You could be forgiven for thinking that he is proudly displaying his scorn for his own oversized pride. Sen. McCain, on the other hand, confesses, with his lean, Bogartian mouth set in a near-grimace, that "I've been an imperfect servant of my country for many years." And then he describes for us the gripping origins of his imperfection. Meanwhile, Professor Obama explains, eloquently and stirringly, the theoretical distinction between "ought" and "is." The difference between the destiny-battered Republican candidate and the issue-arrayed Democratic one is like the difference between a mass-market paperback and a college syllabus.
For Democrats, Siegel is depressing reading. As he argues, it's the Republicans who have demonstrated the "cultural fluency" in taking advantage of what he calls this "postmodern ambience" of politics, spectacle and entertainment. The Republicans get the rules of Political Survivor, the Democrats don't. Here, however, Siegel wanders into the territory of conspiratorial thinkers like Thomas Frank. He assumes that the Republicans know what they are doing in cleverly playing this game. I suspect, however, that for the supporters of Sarah Palin, television reality shows actually are reality. For these small town Americans, humiliation is life rather than a game.
Democrats shouldn't give up hope, however. There is one other way of viewing this election. It's The Manchurian Candidate version (John Frankheimer's 1962 movie starring Frank Sinatra). Rather than a postmodern show about chastised ambition, this one presents the '08 election as a modernist thriller about good Americans brainwashed by an evil foreign power.
Will good triumph over evil? Will Americans wake up from our collective delusion that life is a reality television show? Siegel might be right about McCain's "Bogartian mouth", but Obama has Sinatran eyes. The good guy could still end up winning Political Survivor '08.