It often feels as if cultural politics are our only form of politics these days, not least because the other kind – the old-fashioned kind conducted through the ballot box, and through our elected representatives meeting in a big room somewhere and making collective decisions – transparently don’t work. As the midterm elections of 2014 made clear, no one but the fearful, the crazy and the deeply, pathologically Caucasian (overlapping demographics, to be sure) bothers to vote when the presidency is not at stake. Lots of people will turn out in November of next year to vote for or against Hillary Clinton, no doubt, as they did in Barack Obama’s two elections. But the winner will effectively be decided by a few thousand votes one way or the other in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. I was about to throw in a qualifier about how that’s only a slight exaggeration, but forget it: It’s not an exaggeration at all.
Until the last few days I had largely avoided the toxic tale of the Duggar family and their slow-motion human trainwreck; I’d probably be happier if I still didn’t know who those people were. The Duggars are like some collective punishment we have visited upon ourselves, after deciding that we have reached the lowest levels of Dante’s Hell without bothering to die first. Every second you sink into their story drains away more of your human spirit, and brings you that much closer to morbid despair. When Nietzsche coined his famous maxim about staring into the abyss, he had no freaking clue how dark it would get. Still, even what I have absorbed by osmosis makes it clear that the Duggars have become a flashpoint for cultural debate about the role of religion in American life and the way sexual abuse is often tolerated or minimized or covered up within families, as well as a key battleground in the right-wing media’s increasingly panicky defense of “traditional values.”
I have only intermittently paid attention to the saga of Caitlyn Jenner and her masterfully managed chrysalis emergence. But whatever you want to say about the reality-TV artificiality of the spectacle, which has alternately resembled the grooming of a prospective movie star and a new-product rollout, Jenner’s reinvention is a watershed moment in American cultural history. Her impact on trans people and their advocates and allies has clearly been enormous, including all the inevitable conversations about issues of race, wealth and privilege. For the rest of us, Jenner’s coming-out party has offered a society-wide teachable moment, from well-meaning liberals forced to realize that they didn’t understand this issue as well as they thought they did to the bewildered floundering and ugly jibes of so many media commentators.
When you observe the intense and unfeigned public response to those stories, and the symbolic media warfare they provoke, it becomes not just meaningless but dangerous to insist that such things are inherently trivial, or serve only to distract the citizenry from Serious Issues and Real News. Caitlyn Jenner and the Duggar family speak to America’s changing sense of itself, and to the shifting fronts in the “cultural war” that Pat Buchanan invoked in his famous speech in the Houston Astrodome, 23 years ago. (I was there!) They are in fact the substance of our national conversation, the central narrative of American political and cultural life in our time. What happens inside the Beltway is a footnote, if that.
Mind you, there are certain areas of conventional politics people still care about: the areas where it becomes pure spectacle and has nothing to do with policies or legislation or governance. Along with many other Americans, I am morbidly fascinated with the Hillary Clinton campaign and its dysfunctional relationship with the news media. Like a moth drawn back to a dying flame, I can’t resist the noble and/or ridiculous media spectacles staged by the sacrificial Hill-alternatives on the Democratic left: First Bernie Sanders, who is a great guy who has no chance, then Martin O’Malley, who is a pretty good guy who has absolutely no chance, and now Lincoln Chafee, who is from Rhode Island and wants to make the metric system mandatory in America. I don’t even have a sarcastic zinger to throw in after that sentence, because it already contains “Rhode Island” and “metric system.”
OK, nobody cares about Lincoln Chafee; I threw that one in to see if you were awake. I can hear a few of you out there, murmuring grumpily that this would be a better country if Chafee’s super well-intentioned presidential campaign, running on its single liter of petrol, were a more important story than a onetime Olympic athlete’s gender assignment or the news that a crazy Christian family is even crazier than we thought. Well, OK, if you say so. But A) I’m not entirely sure that’s true, and B) it’s so far-fetched and hypothetical as to be utterly useless. I mean, why stop there? If we’ve got a magic lamp, let’s wish for peace in the Middle East, flying solar cars, bringing back the dodo and wine in grocery stores in New York City.
To complain about the absence of real political debate and the massive vulgarity of American culture – and mea culpa, dude, I do it all the time – has the veneer of a reasonable, civic-minded adult perspective. But on a philosophical and epistemological level, it’s also a refusal to reckon with reality. If the only politics we actually have are the politics of culture – of symbolism and representation and media spectacle – then we have to fight on that terrain or give up entirely.
There is indeed a grave risk of distraction within big cultural-politics extravaganzas like the Duggar and Jenner stories, but not because those stories are trivial in themselves. We are always at risk of asking the wrong questions, pursuing the wrong threads and failing to observe connections that arguably should be obvious (but have been intentionally obscured). Exactly the same danger can be found in the grand spectacle of presidential campaigns, which are subjected to reams of arid semiotic analysis and amateur theatrical criticism, while the most important questions – what can be discussed in public and what cannot, who actually wields power in America and toward what ends – are not mentioned.
As my colleagues Jim Newell, Heather Digby Parton and Elias Isquith have variously observed, the political media has a long-term relationship of mutual hatred with Hillary Clinton, and appears determined to cover her 2016 campaign (which is a historic event by any measure, love her or hate her) as a story of low-rent Freudian conflict between the candidate and the press corps. Maybe that’s really how the reporters for Politico and Slate and the big dailies experience their interaction with her campaign; I wouldn’t know. It’s evidently what they believe will be most illuminating and entertaining to their readers. I understand that they are too cynical and too intelligent to be much interested in the question of what Clinton would do as president, since the universe of things that a president might do is well understood (and can be summed up in the phrase “whatever makes the bankers happy”). And you can’t write stories every day about What This Means for Women. But the permanently jaded and insiderish mode of 21st-century political journalism amounts to a collective decision to change the subject -- or to use Joan Didion’s memorable phrase, a deliberate failure to observe the observable.
What is observable but overlooked, in these cases and so many others, are the connections between things: the historical roots and long-term consequences and unquestioned underlying presumptions. The essential ideological mode of 21st-century consumer capitalism insists, first of all, that it is not ideological at all but neutral and scientific. Next it insists that all events, and all people, are isolated and disconnected. All phenomena appear and then disappear; they have no past, no future and no relationship to each other. Everything that happens must be considered on its own. Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that there was no such thing as society doesn't go far enough; there is no such thing as culture or history either. The only question to be asked and answered in any presidential election is who will win, and what combination of political hoodoo, outright lies and opponent’s gaffes will make that happen. What do we remember about past campaigns? The supposed policy debates, or Michael Dukakis in that tank, John Kerry windsurfing and Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women”?
To inquire too deeply into the historical process that produced our denatured bipartisan system, or the never-challenged consensus that elections are won and lost in a circumscribed zone called the “middle,” or why candidates on the right or left who raise certain issues are immediately branded as crazy and unelectable, is to express a dewy-eyed and hilarious innocence about the nature of “political reality.” That, of course, is the inexorable force that has shaped (and been shaped by) a discontented and apathetic public who either do not vote or who vote for stupid reasons, and who can reliably be depicted by the all-seeing cynics of the political commentariat as the butt of a long-running joke or the laboratory mice in a long-term experiment.
Elections are not inherently trivial, in other words, but they can be made to seem so. We could say the same thing about the too-bizarre-for-fiction true story of the Duggar family and its secrets, or about Bruce Jenner’s orchestrated fairy-tale transition into Caitlyn, complete with glamorous Annie Leibovitz photo shoot, Vanity Fair cover and way too much public discussion about Jenner’s degree of “fuckability” (a word, and a concept, that seems to have entered the national conversation alongside the visibility of trans people). They are revealed moments of chaos, confusion and change that contain multitudes: What could be more central to the conflicted American project, circa 2015, than how we think about the human body, how we think about sexuality and gender identity as a public and private matter, and how we think about the nature of family?
I don’t feel comfortable saying that stories about what the Duggar parents knew about the sexual abuse in their household and when they knew it, or about how the bewildering and multifarious members of the Kardashian clan feel about Caitlyn Jenner taking her turn in the spotlight, are entirely worthless. They might not be the most important areas to investigate, but they strike me as containing more potential meaning than diva-flavored meta-reports about the security protocols and crappy catering options at a Hillary Clinton press conference. It’s all a question of where these stories, including the fluffiest and most breathless celebutainment coverage, will take us next.
LGBT activists and advocates for sexual-abuse victims have been working overtime to frame the Duggar and Jenner moments as part of a larger social tapestry, and the shift in public consciousness is already palpable. Most trans women do not look like Caitlyn Jenner, and do not have her resources, her relative privilege or her media platform. Most of the sexual abuse that is hushed up or glossed over within traditional families does not involve reality-TV stars who have been promoted as icons of conservative family values, and does not become the subject of a two-part Megyn Kelly special.
But my larger hunch, and it’s really no more than a hunch at this point, is that over the long haul cultural flashpoints like Caitlyn Jenner and the Duggar family can challenge us to view our lives and our fellow human beings differently, in a way that conventional politics almost never does. Bernie Sanders and Marty O’Malley want to drive a sincere debate about the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party and its long-term future, or at least I think they do. (Lincoln Chafee really wants to talk about the kilometer.) But “political reality” will likely strangle that debate in its cradle, and their real function in the 2016 campaign will be to extract a few leftward rhetorical flourishes from Clinton before they endorse her. Not a bad thing in itself, but not much of a solution to the party’s political and ideological dilemma.
Despite attempts on both sides to map the Jenner and Duggar stories onto America’s political divide – blue-state liberals as defenders of the media-hogging trans celebrity, red-state conservatives as defenders of the creepazoid Christian family – stories of human struggle and suffering do not pin down that easily. Caitlyn Jenner has confessed to Republican sympathies, and the talking heads of Fox News have openly struggled with how to cover the Duggar story.
As for the American public – first of all, it’s always a mistake to conceive of “the public” as an undifferentiated mass of hypnotized consumers, the way those jaded Beltway political reporters do. Americans are all over the map, ideologically and culturally speaking, and our beloved country has a high degree of crazy. But I do not believe my fellow citizens are as stupid or as gullible as they sometimes appear. If you want to see democracy in action, here it is: America has voted and the results are in. Our nation has responded to the stories of Caitlyn Jenner and the Duggar family with a passion and intensity it almost never finds in the withered landscape of partisan politics. Is that evidence of what a debased and decadent nation we have become? Or does it tell us that as the realm we traditionally call politics is drained of meaning (or is drained of politics, in the true sense of the world), real politics must be found elsewhere?