Politics and Prime Time

Inaugural Bleachers

Today something remarkable happened: the inauguration of Barack Obama to the White House. And yes, it was truly remarkable, no matter to which of the parties you belong. I listened to his speech and the following jamboree on the radio, since I was at work and was only able to catch a glimpse of the televisions up front. It was great, good, grood even, and it felt good to finally see this thing realized. What, pray tell, do I mean here by “thing”? Well, in fact, a number of things, not the least of which is the induction of a black man to our highest office; that right there has been a long time coming. But perhaps more mundanely I meant simply the inauguration itself. I couldn’t bear another morning of waking up to the pundits going on about how he’s almost our new president. It’s hard to believe two whole months passed since that whirlwind of an election. In a way, it felt like a lifetime, like the presidency was on hold. I imagine Obama was chomping at the bit, and perhaps Bush was savoring every last second he had in the Hotel de Blanc. On the other hand, this inauguration and all the excitement that has come with it has got me thinking, in fact, about just how fast this has all happened, and whether the Hope we’re counting on doesn’t ring a bit more like Hype.

On the night of November 4, 2008, I left church and headed over to my friends’ house nearby to say hello. When I got there, they were, of course, avidly watching the start of the election coverage on all the major networks. I told them right off the bat I would not be staying to watch. I was merely coming over to say hello, visit a bit, and would be headed home to wait until the next morning to find out the results of the election.

“Why wouldn’t you want to watch?” they wondered. Indeed, to my friends, as to most Americans that night, my aspirations to avoid the election coverage at all costs must have sounded asinine. This was the most important night of the year – the night we had all been waiting for, which seemed to capture practically every bit of journalistic interest for as long as any of us could remember.

Of course, a part of me did want to watch – and watch I did, for a while. I, like any informed citizen, had tried my best to keep up with the election coverage so as to guarantee my vote would be knowledgeable, sincere and full of conviction. So naturally I was interested in the outcome. But in my gut, however, I knew that it was curiosity that killed the cat, and my gut was not interested in the imminent ulcer several grueling hours of nail-biting news coverage would surely supply.

I like to think, however, that it was more than just my tummy’s well-being that had me so opposed to the carnival of coverage. I hoped there was also in my delinquency an ingredient civil noncompliance, meaning I could abide by the constraint of ideas and principles over and against my personal gratification and the thrill of television at its most unscripted. There was a feeling I just couldn’t shake, which mirrored perhaps the feeling you get when, having slept through a long flight, you wake up in a different country and climate, on a different day, and among foreign-tongued civilians. In other words, this election business was all happening so fast. In my own state of Kentucky, polls had opened that morning at 6 AM and closed about 12 hours later. Next, Americans collectively took a breath and held it.  For five hours the nation sat rapt before the flat screen HD TV, spiking network ratings perhaps not seen since the last hotly contested election four years earlier. Then came the most anticipated exhale of the century. That same night we had a new president, not 6 hours after the polls had closed.

OK, I admit it. I watched the whole damn thing. But let’s face it: if I hadn’t how could I bloviate on the matter as I am? Perhaps this time around, my nervousness was overcome by disbelief. I simply could not understand how the networks felt confident enough to call a state for McCain or Obama when only 5% of the state’s vote had been counted. More mystifying still, how could they call Washington, Oregon, and California for Obama immediately after their polls closed? It’s not that I was dissatisfied with the outcome (I had become an avid Obama recruit), but just how was it that they were able to “project” without fail which way every state and commonwealth in the Union would fall, red or blue, Republican or Democrat, McCain or Obama?

Not only could I not get a grip on the networks’ crystal ball clairvoyance, I refused to believe this divination was ideal. Sure, it was nice to know the outcome, to “just get it over with”, to let all those months of anticipation dissipate in buoyant joy or bitter sorrow. But I wondered what were we forsaking in our capitulation to prime time politics? How is it that we were willing to parse down the most important decision of the year, of the next four years, in fact, to a matter of moments? Poor Obama and McCain: so obliged were they to ready themselves for crowning victory or devastating defeat only hours after they left the campaign trail. Gone were the days when each vote was taken singularly and seriously, when the gravity of a nation’s resolve outweighed the “urgency of now.” In those days of yore, eager voters had to wait for weeks before every vote was tallied, and a consensus reached. On November 4th, 2008, we could hardly wait till the polls closed before pronouncing our victor.

I wondered: Was this democracy? Was this our sacred ritual of freedom? Perhaps instead this was a sort of ruse, a comic diffusion done up and digestible for the attention-deficient American public. Rather than any dignified sign of civil liberty, this looked to me much more like Hollywood donning wig and gavel to feed us the plot line which we’d come to crave. Suddenly it made sense that the the dust would settle so quickly. Could we, as 21st century American citizens, really bear the suspense of an actual tally of votes? I hardly thought so. We’re the nation of fast food, TV dinners and instant messaging. We’ve come to expect a happy ending after a couple of hours. In other words, we demand instant gratification, and our presidential elections are no exception.

There was something else entirely lost in our mad dash to victory that Tuesday night. So much of the drama of it revolved around the either-or sensibility. The good vs. bad, old vs. young, and experience vs. change narratives the media had written for us (and the candidates stuck by) played perfectly into our preconceived paradigm of contest. The United States democratic process has been locked in a two-party system for decades. Ross Perot made a decent run in 1996 on account of his deep pockets. And on occasion, rogues like Ralph Nader are lambasted for “stealing votes” from the two major candidates. In spite of these anomalies, the essence of our political process has long lain at the feet of two very similar giants. Of course, the general public doesn’t see them as all that similar. They can be delineated with labels like “big government” and “fiscal conservative” easily enough. It’s not that these names accurately describe the parties they are assigned to. It’s just a way for us to keep things simple, to eliminate any shade but black and white. We’ve got to keep things simple or we might get confused. We like our elections like we like our sports: Two teams, one winner. Ties are a necessary evil. But bringing a third team onto the field – or worse yet, a fourth or fifth – just doesn’t fit the bill.

Hence, the vote for third party is often derided as a “wasted vote,” and often the voter’s conscience is overrun by pragmatism simply to avoid the spoiler effect. What’s the point of voting for someone who’s never going to win? Or so goes the logic. This rationale does not reign supreme, however. In every election you still hear of the bleeding hearts out there who hold out hope for a democratic process bigger than just two parties. The evidence is clear. Ralph Nader and company netted nearly 700,000 votes. Bob Barr of the Libertarians caught nearly half a million, and Charles Baldwin, Ron Paul’s pick, about 200,000. These are by no means massive or impressive results. But they demonstrate, at least, that the outcasts had captured some interest – well over a million voters’ collectively. Racing across the finish line on election night, prematurely calling Obama’s or McCain’s name for every state completely cuts these contenders out of the race. Why? Because their race is any less valid than the Democrats and Republicans’? Because they’re less American than the front runners? Hardly. Most of it comes down to money, and the rest goes to public disinterest. We can’t tolerate the wait – especially if the wait involves a pack of nobodies – and so we rush ahead, call the game before we hop in bed, and let the day end.

By no means do I wish for my critique here to detract from the “historic nature” of the recent election. I’ve said already that Obama was my man this year, and I’m glad he won. I wouldn’t have minded, though, waiting a few more days for things to actually happen, rather than simply letting the talking heads call it for me well ahead of time. I lament, too, that our system can’t bear more competition than the little we’re provided between two parties. Civilized democracies – and even some third world governments – around the world enjoy three parties. Several European countries boast five or six parties even. At times these separate groups align to form a more powerful coalition and solidify a win. Other times they’ll go it alone, resting on the strength of their distinct platforms. But options like these are the name of the game when more than two parties are possible. Voters can indulge in the privilege of deliberation. We, too, have access to said privilege. We need only move beyond black and white and into the shades of partisan gray. This, however, may forever remain too tall an order for Americans, so long we call our elections like we do the Kentucky Derby.

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