Shortly after the world changed on November 8, 2016, one of my no-longer-friends enthusiastically declared that we finally had a president who was entertaining. I was horrified, for all the obvious reasons. But I also realized the harsh reality: this is how the world works. Entertainment now trumps, well, everything.
The enthusiastic embrace of entertainment over evidence has complex reasons behind it. It is not just that the American educational system is deteriorating, although, of course, that plays a huge role. American education seems to get worse every year, notably in math and in reading comprehension. Jill Barshay writes that American fourth-graders, on average, had worse reading skills in 2017 than they did five years before. Scores of the bottom tenth fell 12 points, the bottom quarter fell nine points, and students in the middle fell seven points. In fact, students at the 10th percentile remain well below a basic level, “unable to make simple inferences or interpret the meanings of words.”
There are a variety of reasons for this–including an increase in poverty, the erosion of the middle class (parents now work multiple jobs and long hours and are less able to be involved in their children’s education), and shifts in the educational system (such as Common Core)–but one large and very significant reason is that educational funding has declined dramatically, and, for that, one reason is largely to blame.
Since its creation, Republicans have tried to dismantle the Department of Education. In their article, “A Brief History of GOP Attempts to Kill the Education Dept,” Dan Bauman and Brock Read outline Ronald Reagan’s various attempts to do exactly that as one of his first acts in office, including appointing an educational secretary, Terrel H. Bell, whose assignment was to shut it down. Bell, however, had second thoughts, and so Reagan replaced Bell with William J. Bennett, who had no second thoughts about such things. Even though Reagan and Bell were (fortunately) not successful in their plan to dismantle the department, Reagan was successful in slashing the department’s budget and limiting it regulatory authority.
In 1995, Steve Gunderson, a Republican representative from Wisconsin, also pushed for the department to be eliminated. In its place, Gunderson advocated for a merger of the Education Department with the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Commission. Many Republicans, include Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, supported this move. Unfortunately for those Republicans, President Bill Clinton did not allow this plan to get traction.
Despite the fact that the Department of Education still exists, it is not for lack of trying by the Republican party. Michelle Bachmann, for instance, advocated turning off the lights and locking the door. Rick Perry listed it as one of the agencies he would get rid of as soon as being elected President. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Donald Trump have all called for the eradication of the agency. The Republican Party of Texas even went so far as to state, in their official 2012 platform, that they oppose “the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills” and “critical thinking skills” which “focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs.” (Because, after all, heaven forbid pre-established behavioral patterns and opinions should ever be challenged!) As Valerie Strauss wrote in The Washington Post at the time, “this notion isn’t limited to the GOP in Texas but is more commonly being seen across the country.” It is not a coincidence that critical thinking skills are seen as deadly to Republican power, which rests solidly on those who have, for instance, not attended college.
All of this, clearly, is nothing new. But right now, at this very second, at this very moment, the lack of critical thinking skills is rotting our country from the outside in. As proof? The election of Trump himself. Further proof? The very selective audience paying close attention to the impeachment hearings. Everyone else, arguably those who most need to be convinced of Trump’s treason, have, in fact, dismissed them as “boring.”
Robert Erikson, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, observes that “Republicans often tap local TV newscasters or even weathermen as candidates for office” precisely because these people “are celebrities at the local level.” Of course, celebrity politicians are nothing new, and certainly not relegated to the Republican party or even to the United States. However, the various failures of Trump, as a result of his lack of political knowledge and skills, or even his refusal to acknowledge the very rules upon which democracy is based, are, perhaps, the worst possible outcome from someone being elected primarily because of their “outsider” status.
While those with critical thinking skills may recognize that outsider status on its own is not the golden ticket, others embrace it for the novelty and yes, the entertainment value. Emma Grey Ellis, in an article for Wired entitled “How Hollywood Accidentally Ushered in the Age of the Celebrity Politician,” argues that the integration of Hollywood into American politics, either through politicians or through supporters of politicians, has had a very serious side effect: it has primed American audiences for a new kind of political voice, one that prioritizes “grabbing and holding attention over anything else.”
Ellis recounts how President Eisenhower gave actor Robert Montgomery an office in the White House, so as to better “coach the president on how to be more photogenic and medi-friendly.” This strategy snowballed, until, eventually, “Republicans started recruiting entertainers to run for office themselves–beginning in the 1950s but accelerating over the next two decades.” Kathryn Cramer Brownell, author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life, argues that political authority remains “firmly rooted in being able to get media attention.”
In an essay for Time, Sharon Marcus describes the way Davy Crockett (1786-1836) manipulated the media to rise to fame and political power. She writes that Trump used similar techniques, not only because “reporters latched onto both men because their showmanship made for good copy,” but also because Crockett and Trump “understood how to leverage tensions between their supporters and representatives of the media. Both favored direct appeals to the public and both often dismissed what others printed about them as lies.”
Impeachment hearings are not criminal trials. In many ways, they are displays of showmanship whose primary purpose is to sway the court of public opinion, especially during an era when it is more popular than ever to choose party over country. It feels like a foregone conclusion that the House will vote to impeach President Trump. Unfortunately, it also feels like a foregone conclusion that the Senate will not vote to remove him. This is one of several reasons some Democrats cautioned against moving toward impeachment. They felt that the eventual victory would just further embolden Trump, and that that was a risk not worth taking.
(The default rebuttal to that is that it does not matter which way the Senate votes because the most important verdict will happen in the minds of voters, which makes it exceedingly important that as many people as possible are paying attention. After all, the Senate did not vote to remove Bill Clinton from office, but the stench of impeachment can be credited with boosting the Republican wave that followed Clinton’s tenure, and, it could also be argued, sticks with Hillary to this day.)
The only way the Senate will vote for removal is if politicians can tell (very clearly) which way the court of public opinion is heading, and that will only happen if the public is paying attention.
The tricky issue at the moment is the Fox News echo chamber. The people who already know Trump is guilty of impeach-worthy offenses do not need to be convinced. They do not need to be told to pay attention. They already are. The problem is everyone else, especially everyone watching Fox News, which, for the most part, is Trump’s fan base, and it is their minds, specifically, that must be swayed. And those people are not listening.
As Bob Lefsetz writes, “The story of now is how the viewers/readers of Fox and other right wing outlets get a completely different view of the news from those on the left. Roger Stone got convicted and it was the twenty fifth article on foxnews.com, today I didn’t even find it on the home page. The story doesn’t square with the narrative. As for the impeachment hearings, did you know they’re a travesty and the Republicans are wiping the floor with the Democrats? The story on the left is David Holmes heard the conversation. But that’s not even a story on the right.”
It is not a coincidence that it is not a story. It is not a coincidence that Republicans want to gut education in America. It is not a coincidence that Republicans oppose critical thinking skills. It is not a coincidence that 61% of non-college-educated white voters voted Republican in November 2018, while just 45% of college-educated white voters did so. As Adam Harris points out, “53% of college-educated white voters cast their votes for Democrats compared with 37% of those without a degree.”
(There are numerous studies that link a college education with a move toward the Democratic party. Unsurprisingly, as Michael Grunwald recently wrote in Politico, “The next big Republican culture war will be a war on college.”)
It is also not a coincidence that so many Republicans embrace celebrities with no political experience but lots of name recognition, and it is not a coincidence that so many Republican voters are swayed by entertainment value. After all, they elected a reality television star to the highest office in the land.
All of that is to say, that, in the long term, if we want to rebuild this country, we will need to find a way to rebuild our educational system. We need Americans to be critical thinkers and educated voters. But in the short term, if we want to get more people to see what’s really going on, if we want the court of public opinion to shift more fully towards the “remove from office” camp and away from Fox News, so that maybe, just maybe, the Senate’s vote will not be a foregone conclusion, then, yes, unfortunately, we need a little pizzazz. It may be depressing, it may be disappointing, but it is our current reality. This is how the world works.