Escapism as Politics: American Liberals and Cultural Consumerism

(This is a joint post by Douglas and Cato)

If there is one thing that you can say about the Bush Administration with absolute certainty, it was absolutely catastrophic for American liberalism.

It began with the closest presidential election in the history of the United States, with George W. Bush “winning” Florida’s crucial electoral votes by just 537 votes. In the face of such a questionable election, liberals decided to direct their ire towards Ralph Nader for having the temerity to participate in a free and democratic election, stating that the 97,000 votes that he received in the state were to blame for handing the Republicans the presidency; more so, apparently, than the 200,000-plus Democrats who voted for Bush in Florida.

The terrorist attacks on September 11th and the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with an increasingly reactionary domestic policy, capped off by aggressively gigantic tax cuts for the wealthy and a Medicare drug plan that was a massive giveaway to drug companies, to put liberals into a defensive crouch. An unprecedented midterm loss in 2002, driven largely by nationalist sentiment stirred up in the wake of 9/11, was compounded by another questionable loss to Bush in 2004. While liberals were able to head off some catastrophes, like defeating Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security immediately after he won re-election, the story of his administration is largely one of traumatizing defeat for liberals in a way that had not happened in modern American politics.

In the face of this kind of demoralizing defeat, liberals sought a surcease to their feelings of loss in media and culture. Two programs, in particular, stick out as enduring symbols of that era of retreat.

Santos: It’s true. Republicans have tried to turn “liberal” into a bad word. Well, liberals ended slavery in this country.

Vinick: A Republican President ended slavery.

Santos: Yes, a liberal Republican, Senator. What happened to them? They got run out of your party. What did liberals do that was so offensive to the liberal party? I’ll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did Conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, ‘Liberal,’ as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won’t work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor.

On the night of September 22, 1999, a new drama premiered on NBC. The West Wing centered around the fictional presidency of Jed Bartlet, a former Democratic governor and Nobel Laureate in economics from New Hampshire, and the people in his inner circle. It was a show that reveled in its relative fidelity to accuracy about the way that presidential administrations worked from the inside, which was helped by the numerous connections to Capitol Hill on its staff: writer Lawrence O’Donnell (the author of the debate repartee above) was a former Senate staffer; writer Eli Attie was a former presidential speechwriter; and consultant Dee Dee Myers served as a White House Press Secretary.

In any other time in American history, it would have been a good drama that happened to revolve around national politics and the presidency: the United States’ answer to the original House of Cards.

But this was no other time in American political history. The presidential election of 2000 produced a disputed outcome in a national election for the first time since 1876, and much like that election, the Democrats ended up on the losing end. In addition to facing down the first unified Republican government at the federal level since 1954, Democrats also had to contend with a powerful new force in television media: Fox News Channel. Founded in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and run by former Republican media consultant Roger Ailes, Fox News became the go-to source for reportage and opinion with a strong conservative slant. The terrorist attacks on September 11th — and the reactionary politics that followed — gave Fox News a boost that they have not relinquished, as they have remained at the top of the cable news ratings since December 2001. By the time Bush was re-elected in 2004, senior White House adviser Karl Rove spoke of a “durable Republican majority”.

In this atmosphere, The West Wing became more than just a good television show; it became Al Gore fan fiction. For one hour, liberals could disappear into the inner workings of the Bartlet administration and imagine what the United States could have been were it not for those backwards Southerners (because, let’s be honest, it’s always a backwards Southerner that is the most enduring target for liberal scorn) ruining things with their voting and participation in our democracy. The opportunity was never missed to showcase liberal superiority over their conservative foes: in fact, the pilot episode deals with the political fallout from deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman telling a religious activist on a talk show that her God “was too busy being indicted for tax fraud”. Another famous moment comes when, at a White House reception for radio show hosts, a right-wing Christian radio host — modeled on Dr. Laura Schlessinger — refuses to stand when Bartlet enters the room. If you have not seen the episode, then you have surely seen the words spoken by the fictional president:

I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side-by-side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing, while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.

The words look familiar, of course, because they are taken from the famous “Letter To Dr. Laura” of liberal chain e-mail lore. When you consider, though, that the episode airs at a time where the Religious Right is at the height of its powers in American politics, it is easy to see why the lack of originality takes a back seat to the content’s propagation on a show that won eight Emmy Awards that season.

But where The West Wing provided an escape for American liberals dealing with a loss of political influence, another show would provide that same group a feeling of catharsis.

Stewart: You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.

Carlson: You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think.

Stewart: You need to go to one. […]

Carlson: Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.

Stewart: No. No. I’m not going to be your monkey.

Stewart: [To Tucker Carlson] How old are you?

Carlson: Thirty-five.

Stewart: And you wear a bow tie… So this is theater… Now, listen, I’m not suggesting that you’re not a smart guy, because those are not easy to tie… But the thing is that this—you’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate, which would be great… It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.

Jon Stewart took over as host of The Daily Show on January 11, 1999. Premiering in July 1996 and originally hosted by Craig Kilborn, it was much more focused on pop culture, with gags like Kilborn giving one sentence reviews of movies after sharing what the budget of the movie was in Italian lira. Intended to be akin to Politically Incorrect, it ended up more as a basic cable late-night show with a couple of gimmicks. After Stewart took over (and was joined by David Javerbaum and Ben Karlin, veterans of satirical newspaper The Onion), The Daily Show pivoted away from pop culture minutia and towards a focus on news and politics.

The rest was history. The Daily Show’s Indecision 2000 coverage of the election put them on the map. It won them a Peabody Award and drew in a bigger and bigger audience. The chaotic mess of the final vote count in Florida kept a fresh flow of material for the writers to crack wise about. After 9/11, The Daily Show was off the air for nine days, and Stewart returned on 9/21 with a serious monologue that has gone on to become the stuff of myth:

The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. Now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.

Between these two events, The Daily Show became a cultural force. With Stewart at the helm, it won 23 Emmy awards and two Peabody awards. Its Indecision 2004 and Indecision 2008: Clusterf@#k to the White House were even more popular than the 2000 iteration. It served to launch Steven Carell into a successful comedy film career and Stephen Colbert into a spin-off of The Daily Show that was a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s blustering on-screen persona. It was largely responsible for the demise of Crossfire, a CNN show premised around a Democratic pundit and a Republican pundit squabbling for twenty five to forty five minutes, after Stewart made an appearance in 2004 that got a lot of coverage for his scathing rhetorical approach to the hosts. The Daily Show even got a book published about the American political system in 2004, which went on to be a best-seller. By the time George W. Bush left the White House, The Daily Show was a political and cultural force to be reckoned with, and would continue to be so until Stewart gave up the role in 2015.

Even more than the humor provided, or the tough questions Stewart and his correspondents would ask of those in power at a time when the media was best known for mindlessly regurgitating talking points from the Bush White House, The Daily Show provided liberals with another outlet of coping for political impotence, a catharsis that allowed them to process the events of the day. While mockery can puncture egos and bring the arrogant down to earth, it can also allow one to feel superior to and smarter than the target. In the face of the kind of political impotence liberals were facing down in the era of estate tax cuts and Shock and Awe warfare, The Daily Show’s satire allowed those who felt dismayed at the course the country was taking to feel better and smarter than the people actually steering that course.

There are other examples of this retreat into popular media, such as MSNBC endeavoring to become the liberal answer to Fox News and the hilarity that was Air America Radio, but The West Wing and The Daily Show are the two most enduring examples of American liberalism being routed into a focus on culture rather than politics. For six hours each week, these shows allowed liberals to escape from and relax about the brutal reality of their political failures.

Yet, this retreat into media consumption is not one of the primary causes of liberalism’s wane in the United States. It isn’t even a secondary cause. It is, however, part of the reason why it cannot recover the ground it has lost (the bulk of the reason being the decline of its political base). Take a look around at online liberal haunts like Being Liberal, and you’ll see people frequently more interested in showing off how much smarter and wiser they are than their ideological foes than working to actually achieve power. Liberalism has become addicted to smug, and that smugness makes it harder and harder for it to compete against the right.

After all, they have nothing else.