Thursday, June 23, 2016

"We don't really talk, do we?'

"We don't really talk, do we? We just contradict each other," Brain Dead's Laurel (D) says to Gareth (R) in the show’s second episode in which the two congressional staffers attend Washington’s “Tax Prom” together - and do seem to enjoy dancing together at least. (Of course, it is two actors we are watching. Whether actual political staffers would either dance as well or appear to enjoy it - and each other- as much is obviously another question.)

Whatever one thinks of the show itself and its artful attempt to combine contemporary political commentary/satire with science fiction/horror, I think that Laurel's two sentences speak volumes - not only about the on-screen interaction between Laurel and Gareth (and most of the other characters) but also (as presumably it is meant to do) says something about our contemporary national political culture. And, of course, the tragedy is that we do not have alien ants from outer space to blame for this sad state of affairs. Rather we have ourselves - and mainly ourselves, as citizens and voters - to blame. And nothing has highlighted this state of human - not just congressional - dysfunction more than the current presidential election campaign (which is also actually the ostensible background in Brain Dead).

What commonly passes for "populism" in modern American politics - whether on the right (Trump) or on the left (Sanders) - is often a sudden awakening of a passive population that has largely justified its passivity by promoting a cynical view of politics that blames politicians for society's problems but never blames the voters who put them in power. (Voters here also includes the non-voters, whose cynical passivity must in the end be counted as a de facto vote for the establishment they purport to abhor.) This is an important undercurrent in American politics that inevitably has exaggerated the power of intensely motivated ideologues within the established political parties.

There are, of course, also institutional factors, proper to the peculiar constitutional construction and institutional dynamics of the American political system that sometimes - often, in fact - set it up for failure. These familiar factors are real enough and should not be underrated. On the other hand, history shows how it has been possible - a challenge at times, but not impossible - to overcome our peculiar constitutional construction and institutional dynamics to get things done when sufficient social consensus existed. It has been the complete collapse of the post-war social consensus, starting already in the 1960s and rapidly escalating in more recent decades, that has made it virtually impossible to practice any semblance of normal politics anymore.

Inherent in the collapse of the post-war social consensus has been the capture of both political parties (but one much more than the other) by extremist ideologies. Both parties have purged themselves of their centrist, more moderate wings and increasingly moved to their respective ideological corners. As a result, both parties are simply less well equipped to - and less inclined to try to - talk rather than just contradict each other. That said, one party remains bigger and more diverse and more focused on practical policy outcomes. The other keeps shrinking (and aging) and has become increasingly more focused on opposition almost for the sake of opposition. Whatever the show's artistic and dramatic merits, Brain Dead does at least portray the cynical opportunism and ideological extremism that has captured both parties, while highlighting how much worse it is on one side of the aisle. To the extent that that illustrates - in the form of entertainment (the preferred post-modern medium for experience) - what we should all already know from honest observation, the show is performing a service of sorts against the dispiriting background of our dysfunctional politics and our discouraging election campaigns..

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