In a pivotal moment of decline of the American cultural class, comedians and entertainers have appeared to take over the serious business of providing valuable political criticism in the presidential campaign.
This default is producing crowds at movie houses and record sales of hastily written books — but these products are mostly opportunistic propaganda lacking the necessary intellectual and moral weight worthy of an opposition. To borrow a phrase from the left’s political canon, the comedians and entertainers are getting richer while the public is getting poorer from the failure to provide an authentic critique of the incumbent president and his administration.
There is no evidence to support the notion that comedians and entertainers are politically accurate or wise. The past few years, on the contrary, provide overwhelming evidence of the opposite — that these celebrities often use their fame and talents to exploit a political campaign with little more than personal attacks, cliches and dubious facts.
I am not saying that comedians and entertainers are not citizens like everyone else, with the right to express their political opinions. But in our American society, celebrities enjoy many special privileges of fame and wealth. And when these privileges are misused, we are all the poorer for it.
I am singling out a self-styled “cultural” elite — so many of whom are conducting a class war against President Bush — but that does not mean that I think there should not be a serious, thoughtful — even witty — and always accurate critique of the party in power and its candidates.
The Bush administration’s conduct of the Afghan and Iraqi occupations is fair game for criticism. Its international diplomacy has been uneven, and knowledgeable critics should be describing any mistakes and proposing alternatives. Trade policies, Social Security trust-fund issues and pension fund issues, as well as medical care and education costs, need critical attention now.
We all know that the candidates themselves will not take the risk of discussing these matters except by carefully orchestrated TV soundbites and slogans concocted after “tests” by focus groups. Economic policy and foreign policy, however, cannot be conducted by emotions. I don’t fault the campaign strategists. Their job is to win. But that is why the journalists, academics and true experts — not celebrities — have a greater responsibility to help the public understand the issues with some degree of fairness and accuracy.
I already have criticized Mr. Bush for his unwillingness to communicate and persuade. Part of governing the nation and conducting its business is to explain, at least in broad terms, how and why you are governing. A president may pursue good policies, but in a representative democracy, the public has a right to know why they are good policies.
The opposition, however, abdicates its duty to explain why the president’s policies are not good, and to persuade the public that it has better policies, when it turns over its job to comedians and entertainers, as well as consultants and sloganeers.
In fact, the attacks on Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been a caricature of a caricature. We are asked to believe that a man who is a graduate of Yale, holds an MBA from Harvard and was twice elected as governor of one of our largest states is a dummy. We are asked to believe that he made up stories to get us into war — a war, it needs to be added, that most Americans understood was necessary, with or without weapons of mass destruction. We also are asked to believe that a man who performed so well in the days following September 11 is spending his time plotting ways to help a company he once headed — to the detriment of his country. Both of these men can be fairly criticized, and I do so, but these charges are ludicrous.
In fact, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Cheney belong to our cultural elite class, a politically correct — and prior to September 11, often American-hating — coterie of comedians and entertainers, artists and academics and life-long bureaucrats. For them, Mr. Bush’s “crime” was not only winning the contentious 2000 election but daring to be a person of religious faith who does not share their cultural tastes and political opinions. (The Republicans have no monopoly on these traits. Sen. Joe Lieberman, once the Democratic vice presidential nominee, and Rep. Dick Gephardt both exemplify these characteristics.)
The rhetorical attacks on Bush-Cheney have become a vicious cultural war whose vocabulary is slander, ridicule and distortion. The comedians and entertainers who have hijacked the political debate to publicize themselves are doing no service to their country. Of greater consequence, they will not accomplish their goals. The joke, in the end, may well be on them.
A lot of Americans, many of whom have not made their final choices in this campaign, are watching and listening. Fulfilling the promise of Jefferson, I think they will see through any huckster’s blather and find in 2004 what really counts.
Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.