Images of power: When will American politics move past spectacle and sensation?

Where are the street protests for health care and debt forgiveness? Maybe we'd need a shocking viral video first

By David Masciotra

Contributing Writer

Published June 27, 2020 12:05PM (EDT)

Protesters hold up their hands in front of a recently erected metal fence in front of Lafayette Square near the White House to keep protestors at bay on June 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters hold up their hands in front of a recently erected metal fence in front of Lafayette Square near the White House to keep protestors at bay on June 4, 2020 in Washington, DC. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

We often hear denunciations of American selfishness. Years of failure to enact progressive policies that promote the general welfare have made it seem that the majority of Americans are indifferent to social problems that do not directly threaten their lives. But these criticisms of American insensitivity rest on the erroneous assumption that a more robust and generous welfare state would not benefit almost everyone in the country. "Democratic socialism" may be a politically combustible term, but those who advocate it might want to articulate their ideology as clearly as possible. Democratic socialism benefits everyone but millionaires. 

In fact, leftist ridicule of consumer capitalism misses an essential and vexing truth of American life. Life in the United States would radically improve if more of its citizens were selfish. If you are gasping over that sacrilege, take a moment to imagine how this country would be transformed if the hundreds of millions of citizens who would benefit from socialized medicine began to fight for it. Imagine what would happen if the 50 million Americans with student debt demanded forgiveness. What if every low-wage worker in the nation joined the campaign to raise the minimum wage to a living wage? Everyone needs to breathe clean air, across class divisions and racial boundaries. What about a broad-based coalition to fight for it?

"Americans don't care about anything that doesn't affect them," a liberal activist recently wrote me in an email. Before I could agree, I realized that Americans don't even care about things that do affect them. Intelligent recognition of self-interest would be a far more practical and effective path between the bizarre state of delusion that currently dominates political debate and an impossible politicized altruism.

An anecdote that does not come from a fairytale or faraway planet in the solar system, but from the recent past, captures the difference between the politics of a healthy democracy and what masquerades for politics in America's culture of distraction, spectacle and apathy.

In 2012, the government in the Canadian province of Quebec announced it would raise tuition rates for public universities from $2,168 to $3,793. Even with that proposed increase, Quebec universities would still have offered a massive educational bargain compared to virtually all American institutions of higher education, but that wasn't good enough for the citizens. Massive protests against the new policy filled the streets of Montreal, Quebec City and elsewhere, and half the province's student population participated in a general strike. Within months, the provincial cabinet announced it would reverse the tuition increases.

The average American college student has accumulated nearly $40,000 in student debt by the time she graduates. Yet American students — and their parents, who often cosign their loans — remain passive even as schools continue to bilk them with annual tuition increases, mysterious "student fees," and markups on required campus products like textbooks that would embarrass the bathtub-gin salesmen of the Old West.

During the Democratic primary campaign, Bernie Sanders announced that, as president, he would forgive all student debt. Elizabeth Warren detailed a plan to eliminate up to $50,000 in debt for all borrowers. Both endorsed the theory that they could implement debt forgiveness policies without congressional approval. Enforcement of student loan agreements rests solely with the Department of Education, according to Warren's legal team.

One might have expected an outpouring of excitement from Democratic voters making monthly student loan payments, and considerable support from apolitical citizens looking to lighten their family's financial burden. But the Warren and Sanders plans barely registered.

Conservatives are fond of reminding their audiences that Thomas Jefferson once warned against the dangers of "elective despotism," a degradation of electoral politics in which candidates compete to "purchase the voices of the people." Jefferson can rest in peace. Andrew Yang's campaign cornerstone was the promise of a $1,000 monthly payment to every American. He never came close to winning a state, and his poll numbers never broke out of single digits.

In recent months, as America slid further into the dangers of a pandemic and unemployment numbers have exploded, millions of people lost their health insurance coverage. Not one protest took place to demand universal health care, even as a temporary stopgap against the worsening of COVID-19. 

Young Americans finally did storm the streets to demand change when video footage leaked of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin methodically murdering George Floyd over a period of eight minutes and 46 seconds, while three of his fellow officers of the law watched in silence.

From America's largest cities to small towns unaccustomed to political demonstrations, a multiracial and multi-faith alliance of outraged citizens has demanded systemic police reform, seeking to end the ongoing atrocity of law enforcement treating black citizens like enemies under a state of occupation.

Noam Chomsky recently called the size and scale of the uprising "unprecedented in American history."

It is cause for hope and inspiration, as millions of Americans unify to lead a necessary movement for justice, basic decency and the rule of law in interactions between police and the people they are supposed to protect, not harass, abuse or kill.

For all of America's flaws, no one should want to live in a country where a video of a cop torturing a human being to death, as he pleads for mercy to no avail, does not provoke rebellion and unrest. But this presents an unavoidable quandary for anyone working to make America more civil and humane: Do Americans require a sensational and traumatic image to arouse their emotions and drive them to fight for social and political change?

Public health experts estimate that 26,000 Americans die every year, because they lack adequate health care coverage. Those who illness or injury might then suffer financial devastation, as medical debt is our nation's leading cause of bankruptcy. A sudden plunge into poverty can place Americans at risk of worse calamities. Public health researchers also conclude that insufficient social services to alleviate the effects of poverty result in tens of thousands of preventable deaths every year.

Despite the undeniable death and misery, there is no large-scale protest movement for a public health care program in the United States.

It took the unshakable horror of George Floyd's murder to inspire widespread activism. The destructive impact of climate change, the absence of minimal policies of civilization like paid medical leave, and even the accumulating failures of the Trump administration to competently and humanely respond to coronavirus have incited relatively little reaction, beyond griping on social media.

The most pivotal players in the struggle for social justice in America are potentially the filmmakers, photographers and visual artists who can capture the stakes of an issue with a dramatic and memorable image.

Political culture in America has become a series of transactions between wild imagery and public emotion. It makes sense that the mainstream media, with the help of too many activists on the ground, is attempting to narrow the focus of Black Lives Matter to its most cosmetic aspect: the tearing down of statues. Meanwhile, the Trump administration and the increasingly racist and paranoid right wing conjures the Hollywood scene of militant leftists wearing black bandanas, prowling through the provincial American heartland, waiting to strike. The hallucinatory theory that antifa is a sophisticated network of highly-funded, armed vandals has provoked its own theatrical response: Heavily-armed, militia-style men standing guard outside small-town churches and stores.

It's as if we all live on a film set where flashes from a special-effects hellscape determine our national debate: A "big, beautiful wall" wall along the southern border, American flags on fire, and the all-too-real scenes from our living nightmare: Cops murdering defenseless Black citizens and assaulting old men. The president striking a deranged pose with a Bible, after ordering the National Guard to use force against peaceful protesters.

How can reasoned policy analysis or sustained focus on the intricate details of law and politics — both of which are imperative to prevent future acts of police murder and similar incidents — compete with the drama and spectacle of American imagery? It is like asking a child to choose between cartoons and Chekhov. 

Presenting that choice to adults, unfortunately, would have a similar outcome. The vast majority of Americans consume the news through television and social media. There is a strong consensus among researchers that audiovisual mediums generate an emotional response more frequently and powerfully than does print, which by its very nature encourages detachment and stimulates the intellect.

Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, understood the power of television more than any of his political clients or competitors. In 1970, he wrote a memo for the Nixon administration explaining that TV was then beginning to dominate the American mind because "people are lazy. With television you just sit — watch — listen. The thinking is done for you."

While acting as Satan's publicist at Fox News, Ailes regularly advised producers and on-air personalities that their viewers weren't nearly as interested in the truth as they are in a narrative that engages their emotions, particularly fear and anger.

Television's conquest of politics, along with the prominence of social media, transforms ideological and policy differences from argument into entertainment. Neil Postman, the late social theorist and author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business," warned presciently that "people will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think." 

The proliferation of "fake news," the tantrums of Twitter and, more than anything else, the entire presidency of Donald Trump demonstrate that America's preference for television and social media as conduits of information — packaged and marketed for easy consumption — is undermining our capacity for reason, our attention span and our ability for analytical thinking. 

Shocking images can bolster just causes: Americans reacted to the scandalous photos from Abu Ghraib during the Iraq war with greater disapproval than they did the war itself. The murder of George Floyd has inspired a mass movement with the potential to remake America into a more free and fair society.

But the primacy of image is dangerous. It enables masterful architects of deceptive storytelling to acquire control of the political debate, arousing forms of passion that threaten to overwhelm fact, reason and logic. 

New technologies enhance the risks. As Al Gore warned in his 2004 book, "The Assault on Reason": 

The combination of ever more sophisticated public opinion sampling techniques and the increasing use of powerful computers to parse and subdivide the American people according to 'psychographic' categories that identify their selective susceptibility to individually tailored appeals has further magnified the power of propagandistic electronic messaging that has created a harsh new reality for the functioning of our democracy. 

Like divergent audiences for two programs in the same time slot, Americans are divided into viewing groups of different shows. One is reality: a country with lethal race and class stratifications, a runaway pandemic with no coherent national response, a president whose vanity and bigotry have endangered our entire democratic system.

The other is "reality": an imaginary "real America" of white, churchgoing taxpayers under siege from masked antifa terrorists, God- and flag-hating anarchists, and minorities mooching off the public largesse. Donald Trump, the heroic avenger, is all that separates civil society from descending into Stalinist dystopia. 

These pictures cannot form a cohesive collage. And America's future cannot depend on the right images seizing the political imagination.

Reforming law enforcement and criminal justice is important, but consider who has the ultimate authority over legal decision-making. Without no theatrical imagery or sensationalist images, the Trump administration and the Republican Senate majority have quietly confirmed and sworn in at least 200 federal judges. Many of them are below age 50, and poised to issue reactionary judgments on issues of labor, the environment, education and police brutality for the next 30 to 40 years.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when it comes to political power, an oath is worth a thousand pictures. Republicans understand this; it's a lesson liberals and leftists must learn.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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