The SNL-ization of Presidential Politics

October 26, 2008

It’s been a good couple of months for the gang at Saturday Night Live. Thanks to Sarah Palin’s comedic twin Tina Fey, Darrell Hammond’s successful transformation from libido-driven Bill Clinton to clueless John McCain and Will Ferrell’s syntax-deprived George W., the late-night laugh ensemble has raised the bar on making fun of this year’s pretenders to the White House. In the long and proud tradition of skewering the high and the mighty, SNL has reaped a ratings bonanza and likely cashed in with loads of ad revenue. 

Although many of the skits have been brilliant takeoffs of the current cast of presidential wannabes, the SNL writers and comedians have been helped along by candidates who just cry out for a laugh line. Producer Lorne Michaels must be praying daily to the patron saint of elections to ensure that the McCain-Palin ticket wins it all, since Obama is too bland and cautious to carry the show for the next four years.

It is hard to point to a downside to SNL’s bullseye on making the W., McCain and Palin look like fools, especially if you are a liberal Democrat from a blue state. But the laugh parade at the expense of the Republicans is not without some troubling impacts on the way we now conduct presidential politics in this country.

What is most troubling is that SNL has become news, not comedy. The 24/7 cable outlets and also the mainstream evening operations have run regular clips of SNL skits as if they were important to public policy options and voter choice. All this attention to comedy routines calls into question the level of seriousness that we view the election of our national leaders and the editorial judgment of those who make news decisions.

Then there is the matter of whether this coverage of SNL is “fair and balanced” since it is the Republicans who are made the target of laughter. The Tina Fey impersonations have been shown and reshown so often on prime time that it is legitimate to ask, for what purpose? Is it just for ratings and revenue or is it also a not too subtle partisan booster campaign for Obama-Biden? Yes, there have been some funny and outrageous Obama skits, but they don’t have the bite and the ridicule of the McCain-Palin skewerings, and they are never shown countless times as comedic news.

By raising the importance of SNL comedy skits from satire to news and interjecting partisan overtones into the show have we now become a political culture where slamming those who run for the White House is an essential part of the electoral process? Are we sending signals to viewers that dignity, honor, respect and decency are not that important in a presidential campaign, only the laugh tract, only the humiliation of political figures, only the further degrading of the highest office in this country? Where does citizen cynicism begin in American politics? One place to start looking is Saturday Night Live.

Oh My! Could I be a Socialist?

October 23, 2008

I’ve had a couple of sleepless nights recently ever since John McCain and Sarah Palin claimed that Barack Obama was a socialist. As they see it, anyone who views ensuring that the middle class finally gets a tax break like the rich, views health care as a right not a priviledge and supports reasonable regulation of our market system is in league with Karl Marx and all those generous welfare states in Europe.

I like to think of myself as a red-blooded, patriotic American who believes in our most precious democratic values and personal freedoms. But could I possibly be one of those Scandanavian lefties who use government revenue to give all citizens access to a doctor, to higher education, to decent housing and to a secure retirement? Am I so taken by Barack Obama that I ignore the fact that he will likely destroy America by proposing such a radical idea as helping the vast middle class live a better and more prosperous life?

I guess this night time tossing and turning was just a McCain-driven nightmare. Fighting to change the economic focus of this country from benefiting the wealthy to helping the middle class is not class warfare or Marxism or European socialism, rather it is wholly American in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, John Kennedy’s War on Poverty and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. What Barack Obama is proposing is simply changing the rules of the capitalist game, not embracing some foreign ideology.

Capitalism is not the word of God that can’t be challenged; it is an economic system that occasionally needs refinement and reform, especially if it fails to generate wealth across the board or fosters an economic and financial situation that endangers the national interest and even national security. All this babble about the dire consequences of ” spreading the wealth”, “taxing small businesses” and “putting wealth generation in the hands of the government” is simply an old trick to make people think that giving the rich, the special interests and the corporations huge benefits benefits everyone. Well the last eight years of flatline personal income for most Americans has shown that trick for what it is- the big lie.

Most Americans see through this charade and know this nation is not going to become a worker’s paradise in the Soviet tradition or even a social welfare state like Denmark. What they do understand is that the current practices of capitalism need to change so that the market system brings prosperity and security not just to the 1% at the top but to all us. I think I’ll sleep better tonight.

Who’s on Joe the Plumber’s Side?

October 16, 2008

Joe Wurzelbacher, the plumber from Ohio, not only got more than his fifteen minutes of fame at the third presidential debate, he also got millions of dollars in free advertising as John McCain and Barack Obama pitched their policy prescriptions for the weakening American economy to him and millions like him around the country. While Joe took the attention in stride and recognized that his name will be but a footnote in the history of the 2008 campaign, there is much more involved in the life and future of this Ohio plumber than just a tag line for the media.

As Americans begin to make their final decisions on who to vote for on November 4th, it is important for them to think about which one of these candidates really is looking out for the best interests of Joe the Plumber. John McCain used Joe as the poster guy for what likely will happen to taxes and wealth distribution if Barack Obama wins the White House. McCain would have Joe and middle class America believe that he will be fighting for them to ensure that an Obama-directed IRS doesn’t dip further into their wallets. Of course McCain conveniently leaves out the part of the story that over the last eight years the Bush-directed IRS has given a sweet deal to those who make way more than Joe, and in the process created a huge income gap between the haves and the have nots.

When Obama retorted that his tax policy would be based on fairness and provide guys like Joe with some long needed relief, McCain could only fall back on the old class warfare cry, which is what the rich now call the proposals to end the sweet heart deal. Never mind that the Bush tax policies have been based on class warfare against the middle class, causing millions of financial casualties in this country. But when the subject of tax fairness is raised and the prospect of a truly progressive income tax looms on the horizon, all of a sudden the wealthy start whinning.

I have no idea how Joe the Plumber will vote on November 4th and he did seem to be taken aback when Obama mentioned the phrase ” spread the wealth.” But even though the Obama comment had a tinge of Marxist theory in it, what has been happening in this country in the Bush presidency is indeed a spreading of wealth, away from the savings accounts of the middle class and into the hedge funds of the rich. All Barack Obama is doing is proposing a turnaround in who benefits from tax policy, the huge middle class or the tiny 1%. If casting a vote is at it’s core a decision about self-interest, than Joe the Plumber and millions like him will realize that tax fairness is long overdue. And if the wallets of the 1% are a little lighter in the coming years, that’s what is meant by change.

It’s Getting Scary Out There

October 13, 2008

No, this is not a Halloween post, but it’s scary nonetheless. The years of the Rove political doctrine of instilling fear in the voting public in order to win elections has now created a culture of hate and perhaps worse among the conservative faithful. In recent days the McCain-Palin campaign has so demonized Barack Obama that those in the crowds have taken up the call and added their own embellishments. The result are rallies that border on extremist shout outs calling Obama all sorts of names and worse. Even scarier, when McCain had the decency to try to calm the crazies with rationality and calm good sense, he was booed and openly challenged by his supporters who would have not of it.

As the Bible says, you reap what you sow, and McCain and Palin have no one to blame but themselves for running a campaign that has come down to blatant attacks on Obama and for feeding the frenzy of supporters who have bought into Rush Limbaugh’s attack mode. When John McCain referred to Obama as ” that one” at the Nashville debate and then refused to shake his hand at the end of the talk fest, it sent a signal to his crowd that it was OK to demean the Democrat and throw civility to the wind.

Now a few right wing crackpots does not make a campaign, but it does show that for many in the Republican Party and the conservative movement race is really the overarching issue and may still have enough energy to make the election close. No matter that it was the unregulated policies of the Bush administration that ruined the retirements of the fearmongers; no matter that the nationalization of the banks ( commonly termed socialism) was an idea of Wall Street Republican Hank Paulson; and no matter that the economic mess we are in is directly attributable to the failures of the conservative philosophy, the prospect of a liberal approach to governing is unacceptable.

The only thing that matters to these zealots is that Obama is black, has Muslim sounding names and talks convincingly about shifting the tax burden to the wealthy. These Limbaugh “ditto heads” have spent so many afternoons listening to the conservative mantra that any diversion from that playbook, especially coming from the mouth of a liberal African-American Democrat, is tantamount to the end of America as they know it.

What’s really scary about all these hate-filled outbursts at the McCain-Palin rallies is that should Obama win in November there will be a constant undercurrent of concern in the country for the personal safety of the President. Most Americans have it in the back of their minds that Obama’s race, name and liberal values could combine to trigger an attack on his life. The events of the last few weeks at the Republican rallies sadly only adds credence to this concern. Yes, it is indeed scary out there.

The Millennials and the Youth Vote

September 17, 2008

As a college professor I talk with the millennial generation on a daily basis. They sit in front of me in class and earnestly ask questions about where this country is going and where they fit into the post-9/11 America.  Born after 1977, the millennial generation, or millennials for short, are certain to have their first impact on the political system of our nation in this fall’s presidential election. While pundits and pollsters are focusing on all those in the middle- middle age, middle class, middle America- the millennials have remained at the margins, in large part because historically young people have a poor voting turnout record.

If indeed the millennials turn out in large numbers, as the explosion of new registrants would suggest, they could hold the key to who gets the White House on November 4th and more importantly bring a far different set of political values and policy positions into the election and post-election process. Unlike the baby boomers who grew up during the Vietnam War and the greatest generation who know the America of the 40s and 50s, the millennials see America differently than those who have been around national politics a lot longer. Many of them are quite vocal in stating that the generations that came before them have really messed this country up and left them to clean up the mess.

Although making broad generalizations about young people is fraught with danger, there is enough evidence around to show that the millennials are a different breed of American. The millennials are first off much more tolerant of personal relationships and committed to privacy rights. A solid majority believe in keeping abortion legal, allowing gays to marry and and don’t see why race is still a major factor in American life. These young people are not “peace through strength” advocates and have little support for any long term commitment in Iraq. While they are attracted to private retirement accounts and slam Social Security and Medicare as bloated programs, they nevertheless have little problem with big government as the agent of change in this country. Most importantly, when asked to self-identify their political leanings, 52% claim to favor the Democrats to 37% who see themselves as Republicans. In terms of ideology the gap is even more pronounced as 42% define themselves as Liberals, while only 18% are Conservatives.

If the millennials remain true to their beliefs and their vision, and more importantly if they turn up at the polls in November, then Barack Obama just may get the electoral boost that he needs. Obama’s message of change resonates with young people who believe that it is time someone listened to them rather than to the people who had their chance and failed miserably. Obama also knows their lifestyle; their commitment to informality, their love of high tech gadgets and their obsession with popular culture.  But most of all Obama knows that they are the future of this nation, and he wants to be their voice.

Of course all this emphasis on the millennials and a future of change could disappear into thin air if this group of traditional non-voters decide to listen to their Ipods, watch the Daily Show or surf the Net rather than cast their ballot on November 4th.

They Must Think You’re Stupid

September 12, 2008

A few weeks ago Barack Obama in one of his campaign stops ridiculed the vacant policy prescriptions of John McCain and the shallow but mean-spirited attack ads of the Republicans by saying to the audience, ” They must think you’re stupid.” With those five words Obama condensed the McCain and Republican strategy for winning the White House- treat the voters as uniformed children and distract them with meaningless cliches.

Obama to his credit does not see the voters as stupid and has actually defined how he will change America once in office. The McCain handlers, however, are convinced that they can win again by not telling Americans how they would make this country richer, stronger, safer and better, but rather how they will make the country feel richer, stronger, safer and better. The McCain approach is right out of the Bush-Rove playbook using patriotism, fear, false promises and misdirection to stop the Obama juggernaut and retain the White House. This strategy is the ultimate in cynicism and elitism as the party of the wealthy and corporate America are banking on their ability to put one by the hapless and stupid voters.

Of course the American voter is not stupid, perhaps a bit distracted, but not stupid. The Obama strategy in the next days and weeks must be to convince Americans that he’s committed to improving their lives, not make them feel better. He must remind them that they have been ignored by the Republicans for eight years and treated as if they are without any understanding of how and why this country is in the dumps.

As many Democrats will recall, there is precedent for using the tag line ” They must think you’re stupid” since James Carville lifted Bill Clinton into the Oval Office with his now memorable observation, ” It’s the economy stupid.” In Carville’s slogan he was reminding Democrats that pocket book issues are all that matters in an election. But this year its more than the economy, its a clever campaign of the McCain camp to use empty bromides to divert attention away from what really matters, all the while believing that the voters won’t notice or care.

Don’t expect the Obama campaign to repeat ” They must think you’re stupid” in television advertising or in battleground state speeches. The McCain people, using their penchant for misstatement and misdirection, will immediately charge that the Democrats must really think the voters are stupid. But it is important for Obama to constantly remind the American voters that they are being treated as ignorant robots who can be programmed to vote the flag, motherhood and lipstick with ease.

This is still Obama’s election to lose and his win can be secured just by simply reminding Americans that they are being taken for granted and treated as if they were stupid.

A Political Reality Check

September 10, 2008

In every electoral campaign for the White House there is the inevitable blame game played by the candidates as they regularly point out what they claim are the evils that are contributing to the downfall of this country and the evildoers who are complicit in this downfall. This presidential election is no different. If you listen to the endless speeches of the Democratic and Republican hopefuls you will find a common list of the sources of national decline. Here is a list of the usual suspects:

The oil companies

Financial speculators


The Federal Reserve

Illegal immigrants

The NAFTA Agreement

Congressional earmarks

The tax code

The super rich

And last but not least, George W. Bush


Now with each of these popular evils and evildoers there is certainly a nugget of blame that is well deserved. The fact that we as a nation are currently in the dumps is in part the result of the miscalculation, the incompetence, the ineffectiveness, the selfisness, the greed and the excesses of these ten suspects. But they are not the whole story; in fact they are only partial contributors to the current malaise. There are far more central reasons why we are in a down period, and perhaps in a permanent decline. No matter what the politicians say about what’s wrong with this country, here’s a list of the real evils and evildoers that are at the core of our national problems.

We Love the Chinese – They make just about everything we use, they are a major cause of skyrocketing gas prices and they are the real reason for our job losses and the decline of the dollar. Yet we treat them as our valued friend; some friend.

A $ 1 trillion war in Iraq – Can you imageine what we could do with that money on the domestic front? 1 hour of the war costs an estimated $ 46 million; with that money from just one hour we could improve, repair and modernize 20 schools in this country. Talk about mixed up priorities.

Credit card debt – Worldwide it is currently $ 5.2 trillion and we in the United States contribute 40% of that debt. The average personal credit card debt is over $ 6,700. Whatever happened to pinching pennies? Wouldn’t it be better to put money into the bank every once and awhile, rather than splurge on that wide screen television?

An aversion to paying taxes – For some strange reason we have bought into the view that ignoring paying for schools, bridges, scientific research and health care is good national policy. Investing in public goods is what civilized societies do in order to make life better. We on the other hand would rather put money in our pockets and watch as our quality of life deteriorates.

The Brittney Spears effect – We live in a popular culture that is inane and insane, and as a result America has become a nation where ignorance is cool and the lives of B-list starlets are of great social importance. Are our lives so vacant that we get pleasure from watching people destroy themsevles? There is a simple solution – read a book.

Washington is broken – but remember we elected Washington

Income inequality – One of the richest nations on the earth and we have over 37 million people in poverty and worse yet, Americans were surprised and shocked to see that poor people lived in New Orleans. Isn’t it time we spent some of our energy and resources to close the poverty gap.

It’s all about me – We have become a nation that thrives on a stubborn refusal to make the sacrifices to save this country. Why do we cling to the belief that bigger is better, and what’s so great about our passion to buy more stuff?

We hate the government – Sure government is intrusive and too often stupid, but as the last few years have proven, if we don’t have government then what we get is an economy that is run for self-interest not national interest, regular rip-offs of the consumer and an army of foreclosures, bankruptcies and workers living on the margins.

In the old comic strip Pogo, the wise reptile says, ” I have seen the enemy and it is us.” Before we buy into our politicians playing the blame game and pointing fingers, we should first look at ourselves. Maybe, just maybe , we are the problem.