Home / Robert Farley / Politics as Hobby

Politics as Hobby


The recent Sheen-stravaganza brings these thoughts to mind. Bernstein:

Remember: if you’re reading this blog, odds are good that you’re at least in the top 10% of all Americans in political knowledge, and more likely you’re in the top 1%. And for those of us in that group, it’s hard to imagine just how little the median American knows about the day-to-day events that we pay so much attention to. Even when in some sort of abstract way it makes sense for people to know about politics or public affairs — for example, it makes sense for Medicare recipients to know how ACA affects them — they just don’t. Sometimes that’s because people aren’t well-educated enough to feel comfortable reading or even watching the news (and the linked polling shows that college grads do much better on this question, although “some college” respondents actually are more likely to believe inaccurately that ACA has been repealed than are those with no college). But often it’s because people have other, more immediate things in their lives to attend to, or they pay attention only occasionally, or they have low tolerance for conflict, or they just don’t see any connection between things happening in Washington and their lives.

I’ve said this before…to get a sense of what politics is like for many Americans, I suggest thinking of something that you do encounter in some way all the time, but that you just have zero interest in. Perhaps sports in general — or, for sports fans, a major sport that you don’t pay any attention to. Perhaps it’s current pop music, or HBO shows, or celebrities. Me? NASCAR, the NBA, and any games made since Missile Command and Stargate Defender. The idea is that I actually do encounter and, in a way, retain a fair amount of information about those things in the nature of headlines that I see but skip the stories, or references made in other things I do read or watch, or conversations I’ve had that veer off in that direction. It’s not as if I know absolutely nothing. It’s just that the stuff I’ve heard is not organized at all, and I’m sure I’ve picked up misinformation along the way, since I don’t scrutinize any of it.

Anyway, when you’re involved in what’s happening in Wisconsin, or Libya, or the budget negotiations in Washington, just keep in mind that most people aren’t paying any attention at all.

There’s a good argument to be made that responsible citizenship in a democracy demands a certain degree of education in politics and current events. In this sense, we can suggest that those who haven’t the faintest what’s going on in Libya et al are doing it wrong; they’re being irresponsible, and their irresponsibility has a negative impact on the health of the body politic. We can also say, with some comfort, that there are interests in every body politic that profit from the ignorance of the citizenry. I don’t buy “bread and circuses” theories of politics, the most modern form of which suggest that professional sports/Jersey Shore effectively represent corporate efforts to keep the citizenry docile, but it’s obvious that Fox News, for example, serves interests for whom an ignorant citizenry is a key value.

And so I’m comfortable to a point with condemnations both of ill-informed citizens and of the larger forces that keep citizens ill-informed. At the same time, I tend to be deeply uncomfortable with the wave of media criticism that emerges every time news networks devote too much time to, for example, the death of a B-list celebrity.  I don’t really care what Charlie Sheen has to say about anything, but as lots of people seem very interested I can’t really condemn CNN for putting him on TV (the quality of the interview is, of course, a different matter).  Preference for news about Charlie Sheen over news of the Libyan civil war seems to me to be largely a question of taste.   I follow politics not just because I think it’s my duty as a citizen, but also because I find the political entertaining. It has always been thus; I became a political scientist because I found politics fun and interesting. I have a taste for politics. Like Bernstein, I find some forms of mass entertainment mind numbingly boring and stupid. I think that it’s arrogant, however to suggest that my preference for baseball and politics over NASCAR and Jersey Shore represents an elevated level of consciousness, rather than just a particular set of tastes that don’t have any particular moral or ethical content.

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  • DocAmazing

    If you don’t buy bread-and-circuses explanations of media content, then can you suggest an alternate explanation for Reality Check, WrongfulDeath, and your other guests from Trollsylvania?

    • Robert Farley

      You will have to phrase the question more clearly, because I’m not sure I understand.

      • DocAmazing

        Surely such a misinformed group of people (assuming it’s not just one misinformed guy with a whole bunch of alternate handles) did not arrive at the same incorrect and self-defeating conclusions independently. Surely the existence of legions of Becks, Limbaughs, Savages, Fred Hiatts, Rupert Murdochs und so weiter played some role in gestating their shared delusional beliefs. It stretches credibility that a whole bunch of people indepentently arrive at the same obviously flawed conclusion without some mass-media assistance.

        If there is not a tendency among the mass media to set the agenda with infotainment (“bread and circuses”, in your phrase), then could you offer some alternate explanation of how they all manage to arrive at the same set of conclusions independently?

        • Hogan

          Did you read the whole paragraph below the blockquote?

          • DocAmazing


            • Robert Farley

              To second Hogan, I believe I answer this objection in the paragraph below the blockquote. See also NonyNony below.

        • NonyNony

          “Reality Check”, “WrongfulDeath” and the other right-wing pseuds are not “misinformed” in the sense that a ‘bread and circuses’ media would create. ‘Bread and circuses’ is a distraction technique – keep people focused on the big NFL games, or who’s screwing who on Jersey Shore, or any other amount of useless drek, but just keep them distracted and not thinking about what’s going on around them.

          Our resident right-wingers (if that is in fact what they are) are not in that group. They’re focused on politics and aren’t distracted by the circus – at best they’re interested in pushing their own ideology and so they do what they can to push it. If that means lies and obfuscation so be it, but they aren’t distracted so much as they are convinced that they’re on the right side of history and they would benefit from right-wing policies. If our trolls are self-absorbed middle-class white guys (like I suspect they are) they might, for example, be looking back fondly to the 1950s when guys like them could be guaranteed a good life because they didn’t need to compete with women, blacks, Asians and others for jobs and think that if we could just turn back the clock to that era they’d be better off.

          The flip side is that I don’t believe our resident mouth-breathers are political people at all – I think they’re classic Internet trolls. The classic Internet troll finds a community on-line, determines what the most anger-inducing things they could possibly post in that community might be, and then post continuously trying to get a rise out of the commenters there. They’re not interested in anything other than pissing off liberals – they may even troll their votes the same way because it amuses them to think that voting for a right-wing troglodyte pisses off a liberal somewhere.

          • Murc

            I’m a little disappointed in RCs performance down in todays WI recall thread. He keeps going after the low-hanging fruit. A real high-quality troll would mix it up some.

            We could also use some more, and better, counter-trolls here, I have to say. Malaclypse is just one man!

            • Malaclypse

              Actually, I am part of an autonomous, anarcho-syndicalist commune. I take turns acting as a sort of executive counter-troll for a week at a time.

              More seriously, there are far better counter-trolls here than I, most especially the good Doctors Dick and Amazing.

          • witless chum

            What NonyNony said. I think that people who have a political ideology, even if its one I think is wrong-to-insane is a step up over the people who want to cut government spending while increasing every possible social program in opinion polls.

            And I understand the psychology of wanting to piss a bunch of people off for fun.

  • djw

    I have an alternative explanation that is both parsimonious and elegant:

    In the year 2011, many troglodydic buffoons have managed to gain access to the internet.

    • DocAmazing

      And come up with the same cliches and talking points.

      Occam’s Razor ain’t sharp enough for that one.

      • wengler

        It’s just like how the same bills magically appear at the same time in about ten state legislatures controlled by Republicans. These bills’ main purposes almost always have to do with destroying the rights of those that support the Democratic Party.

      • joe from Lowell

        They go to the same web sites and repeat what they find there, here. djw’s theory is quite elegant.

        • DrDick

          Fox News and increasingly CNN are also major contributors, as are a number of rightwing newspapers. It is not just the internet, though I will agree that it is not “bread and circuses” either. It is systematic rightwing propaganda.

  • wengler

    There is no problem when one news network covers Charlie Sheen breathlessly 24/7. It is a problem when all of them do it.

    Hillary Clinton is right. You watch Al Jazeera and they have actual news. In depth, non-superficial news. The kind of news that isn’t afraid to tell the truth when the people in power are lying. We have nothing comparable here because all the money in cable news goes to on-air “talent”.

    On the subject of ignorance of the vox populi, it is really one of the wonderful products of corporatization. The job of a corporation is to vacuum up as much capital as possible through whatever means necessary. A society with underfunded public schools and demoralized teachers is just the start.

    The corporate message encourages the people with an unflagging respect for the triumph of the individual, believe in yourself and everything is possible. They encourage the masses that they are special and any collective action brings them down. Thus we have poor people buying into a rich man’s ideology against all facts and reason.

    But what do facts matter when you have faith and slogans. Those who cede their inherent power to change the system to the corporate oligarchy have no sympathy from me. Unlike NASCAR races, the outcome is far more vital to everyone’s future and democracy is not a sport for bystanders.

    • NonyNony

      We have nothing comparable here because all the money in cable news goes to on-air “talent”.

      You are kinder than I. I would say we have nothing comparable here because the people in power are the ones who own the media and the peers of those who own the media and so they get to control the message.

      • wengler

        I would agree with that on Fox News, but look at the dreck that is CNN and MSNBC during the day. These operations are clearly controlled by careerist ladder-climbing executives that are fixated on growing that 18-49 demo by any means necessary.

        They of course are failing at that too, but quality programming never even seems to be a consideration.

        • NonyNony

          You’re missing the big picture about why those careerist ladder-climbing executives are successful at climbing that ladder.

          MSNBC, for example, has long had connections to GE. The careerist ladder-climbing executive could make a big splash by telling their staff to do some in-depth reporting on government waste in the military procurement process. Taxpayer money being wasted is always good for ratings and has been since I can remember. On the other hand, the big bosses aren’t going to like it and he can get the same ratings (possibly better) by covering Charlie Sheen’s latest slide into insanity. And that second option is guaranteed not to tee-off anyone up the line. So which path is he going to choose, and what kind of people is a guy like that going to hire?

          The guys in power don’t have to directly meddle in any of this to get their way – they’ve built a system that rewards the ladder-climbing careerist when they do things to support the status quo power structure and punishes them when they upset it. Then they turn it loose and it’s self-maintaining without them having to meddle with it. It’s not even that I’m talking about mustache-twirling villany with cackles about how they’re doing this – the folks with power are the ones who built the media empires that exist now and every employee in the chain knows what their job is and how they can lose it without having to be told.

          • wengler

            I agree with you. The only thing I’d say is that Fox News is different in the fact that there is THE LIE OF THE DAY and everyone in the organization needs to push it consistently all day.

            • NonyNony

              Oh yeah – FOX News is totally different. They’re a top-down propaganda outfit pushing a single party line. It’s not an organic “support of the status quo”, it’s a network built for overturning the status quo. A completely different thing, and one that was designed to be a propaganda network from the start rather than one that has grown organically from managers trying to please their bosses.

  • joe from Lowell

    Surely, there is some higher moral meaning to following public affairs, that isn’t present in following a sport or a television show?

    It actually matters that there are people paying attention to politics, to the public’s business and the people doing it.

    • SeanH

      But it’s also the case that we don’t follow politics out of a devotion to higher moral meanings, doggedly overriding our urge to watch Real Housewives of Atlanta. We do so because we enjoy doing so.

      And without marshalling an argument against what you’re saying, I’m just uncomfortable with easily declaring that the things I like happen, fortuitously, to be things with higher moral meaning, especially since I’m an elite* and that’s the sort of thing elites do.

      *In the sense of being a white middle-class Anglophone man with higher education, rather than in the sense of being a millionaire in the Cabinet.

      • Joe

        I don’t think you need to kneejerk say something you enjoy has a higher moral value. Some things, upon careful reflection, do all the same. And, some people do pay attention to politics because of a felt need, at least to the degree they do. Many would rather do something else, but take some time out to do it because of a felt need to do so.

      • joe from Lowell

        I can respect that you want to be cautious about making such claims. That’s a good rule of thumb. Absolutely, humility and skepticism are warranted.

        Still, it won’t do to allow that prudence to replace an honest, informed effort to look at the question objectively. Your reticence, which is right, should be a warning sign, not a stop sign.

  • Malaclypse

    I don’t buy “bread and circuses” theories of politics, the most modern form of which suggest that professional sports/Jersey Shore effectively represent corporate efforts to keep the citizenry docile, but it’s obvious that Fox News, for example, serves interests for whom an ignorant citizenry is a key value.

    I think the thing to remember is that the product being sold is not news to viewers, but viewers to advertisers.

    If you think a product is being delivered free, then you are the product being delivered.

    • efgoldman

      …the product being sold is not news to viewers, but viewers to advertisers.

      Exactly this.

      But some of us are old enough to remember when the networks (and many local stations) fought for viewers’ eyes and ears and felt a responsibility for real journalism.

      Of course, we also remember when there were regulatory reasons for the broadcasters to be concerned. When I was on the radio, we weren’t even a news station and I remember the GM preparing and filing reams of quarterly reports…

      Of course, that was before Saint Ronnie deregulated broadcasting…

  • Small reminder: ignorance is always the default state. If you consider how much money and effort it required to achieve a mediocre level of literacy, the inability of so many Americans to locate France on a map is not so surprising. What does surprise me, though, is that anybody is still surprised to discover the public’s general lack of knowledge.

    As has been exhaustively documented in the case of issues like tobacco and health and global warming, political and business groups can and do manipulate public opinion by deliberate and well-though out campaigns of disinformation–we even know the PR firm that pioneered the basic methodology (Hill and Knowlton. I just want to point out that these efforts take place in the context of what the Swiss anthropologist Jensen called Urdummheit, the baseline stupidity and mental torpor of our kind. It’s not just that most people aren’t sufficiently educated to understand what’s going on or that they are simply distracted, though both bad education and indifference are surely factors. Human beings who are normal in a statistical sense are just not that bright in terms of what they can actually understand without special coaching. Any analysis of politics, especially democratic politics, that does not take these limitations into account will end up mistaking incapacity for malice.

  • Captain Splendid

    Bob Harris had this topic covered a while back:

    To review: news shows are, yes, shows. They do not make money by providing us useful information. They make money by providing us… to the advertisers.

    • Malaclypse

      I knew I stole that idea from somewhere.

  • SeanH

    I think that it’s arrogant, however to suggest that my preference for baseball and politics over NASCAR and Jersey Shore represents an elevated level of consciousness, rather than just a particular set of tastes that don’t have any particular moral or ethical content.

    This is one of the most prevalent and annoying forms of hackery, I think. “People are doing a thing I dislike, which is evidence of the continuing degeneration of Western civilisation”, where that thing is speaking in dialects associated with the lower classes, or watching TV shows associated with the lower classes, or ignoring upper-class etiquette systems, or something along those lines.

    • chris

      True in your examples, but when the thing is “neglecting the public sphere to the extent of allowing it to be hijacked by rent-seekers”, perhaps not so much.

      It’s one thing to say that NASCAR is just as good as opera for people who enjoy one as opposed to the other; it’s another to disavow the concept of civic engagement as a civic duty.

      Political engagement shouldn’t be just an upper-class thing anyway; that’s unhealthy for the republic.

      • SeanH

        Definitely. But I think this is to a degree analogous to, say, eating healthily and getting lots of exercise: for those of us for whom they come very easily, it can be difficult for us to appreciate how hard they are for others.

        I definitely want to increase everybody’s political engagement and awareness. It’s good for everybody – for them individually because they gain knowledge and wisdom, for them as a class because they are better able to identify and pursue their interests, and for societies in general (it may be germane that I’m in a different society from you). What I’m wary of is accusing people who for whatever reason lack political engagement and awareness of a moral failing, because in general I don’t think that’s appropriate, especially when their current state so benefits the established power structure.

        • I wouldn’t go so far as to say ignorant Americans are morally at fault, but wouldn’t you agree that they are, at least, bad citizens, in the ideal sense of the word?

  • eb

    Just want to add my vote for “bread and circuses” as a useful model, at least. Except that for a lot of Americans these days, it’s more like “circuses, no bread”.

    • rj

      Call it “let-them-eat-cake and circuses”

  • The post is solid, but your conclusion seems totally non-sequitor. You end up saying you don’t assign any moral superiority to your own interest in politics over other interests that Americans might have in sports or music.

    This conclusion is too weak. Maybe politically ignorant Americans are not morally at fault for their ignorance, but they sure as hell are bad citizens. They’re simply not doing their part to check those in power, and as such, they only serve to oppress those of us who actually do care about fair and prudent governance.

    Think of all the redneck Republican rubes in the Rust Belt who fiercely defend the political interests of the very corporate executives who fuck them over when they try to organize for better wages. People like them routinely vote against not only their own interests, but the interests of ALL OF US.

    Citizen ignorance is a basic, easy-to-diagnose dysfunction of democracy, and in my estimation, it deserves a greater condemnation than, “well, they like sports and I like politics and we’re all just people trying to get by.”

    Sports do not determine what quality of education or health care my children receive. Sports do not determine how high my income tax rate is or where and when my country declares war on other nations. That’s politics, buddy.

    These people are failing the rest of us, if not morally, then politically, for sure.

    • DocAmazing

      My own paranoid $0.02: this situation has not come to pass without some deliberate input by the major media outlets. In the extreme example, Murdoch has lost money on FoxNews, and some of their more lunatic commentators continue to broadcast even when their audiences decline. Contrast the experience of Phil Donahue, yanked off for mouthing off.

      To lay blame for the entire situation at the feet of audience stupidity is tempting, but there is more to it.

  • Mojo

    I think it’s time to resurrect my “Get out of the vote!” campaign. Those who are satisfied with any of the likely candidates or either side of an issue and don’t care enough about a campaign to learn more about it than headlines and slogans aren’t bad people. They’re just happy. We shouldn’t guilt them into making an uninformed choice so that they can dilute the votes of people who are informed.

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