In 1960, the second televised presidential debate took place (in 20th century American canon, what I am alluding to is typically portrayed as the first, but the actual first televised presidential occurred four years prior—between two women—when Senator Margaret Chase Smith debated on behalf of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, against former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who represented Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson).
Prior to this historic event between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, common perception was that JFK was not ready for the office, and that the veteran Nixon would prove that he had far deeper knowledge of the most important issues of the day. On radio, this is largely how it was received. JFK earned positive marks, but the consensus was that Nixon won the debate.
Anyone who has studied any 20th century history knows that’s not how that famed event played out. It is the traditional example of the power of television. Nixon had just recently left his stay at the hospital after a leg injury, and he looked sweaty and pale compared to the much younger JFK, who had planned for his visual presentation by wearing a well-contrasted dark suit. You can see in the video below how stark a distinction the imagery drew, which went a long way in defining each candidate in Kennedy’s 1960 victory.
Former GOP Senator Bob Dole, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1996, said to PBS at the time “I was listening to it on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job. Then I saw the TV clips the next morning, and he…didn’t look well. Kennedy was young and articulate and…wiped him out.”
Which brings us to Ellen, and Ellen. Ellen DeGeneres is a human being who has thoughts and feelings just like anyone else. Ellen is the thrust of her means of production, and it is an immense success (she is worth an estimated $450 million, and she makes $75 million per year just from TV and acting). She is both an individual and a purveyor of an economic system, and this complexity cannot be divorced from the mess she waded into this week. Her actions are a demonstration of the nature of power, independent of the nature of the personality wielding it. Those who jumped to her defense, like former Chief Strategist for Barack Obama (and current business partner of Karl Rove, Chief Strategist for George W. Bush), David Axelrod, further illuminated how firm class solidarity is among our political, economic and media elite.
It all began with a picture of Ellen sitting next to former president George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game this past weekend, and culminated in a staunch defense of Bush on her show (seen in the title picture above). The Cowboys are owned by oil and gas magnate/Trump supporter, Jerry Jones. This is the kind of world that $75 million per year gets you in to. I don't say this to impugn Ellen the person's character (well, a little), but to simply highlight the fact that she has amassed such power that she can now attend signature football games with former presidents. She may seem goofy and awkward just like you and me, but I can promise you, she is not just like you and me. At least not anymore.
Power > Personality
There are many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many reasons for liberals to dislike George W. Bush, and yet, a man whom a generation of millennials were raised to believe was the devil incarnate is now viewed positively by 41% of Democrats, and only 22% strongly disapprove of a person who is widely regarded as one of the worst, if not the absolute worst, presidents this country has ever seen.
This speaks to the systems-individual disconnect at the heart of the last forty (or so) years of liberal politics. We harnessed the power of TV as a competitive advantage first, and the traumatization of 1972 scared a generation of liberals away from an aggressive posture towards progress, and the Clinton years in the 1990s reinforced this belief in the power of personality over policy. Much of the friction on the left stems from the fact that a new generation with no memories of the 20th century liberal humiliations is ready to embrace the ambitious systems-focused logic of the 1930s and 1960s in fighting the good fight. Of the three dominant political factions in politics today (conservatives, leftists, liberals), liberals place the least focus on systems and the most on individuals. Sure, Trump is driving an unhinged cult of personality, but his central pitch to his voters is being a vehicle of destruction to the current system—there is no one else in the GOP universe who even comes remotely close to Trump in importance. He is their system.
In short, conservatives and leftists want to amend the political and economic system towards implementing the policies they believe in, while liberals believe the system can work just fine with the right technocratic people in place, and the policies they are pursuing are secondary to the (supposed) quality of the individual in power.
If liberals feel a bit alienated right now, there is a logical reason for it: liberals view power differently than everyone else, and Ellen has provided a perfect example of the person-power split at the heart of liberal politics by defending her “friend” George W. Bush—a former Republican president who wanted to pass a constitutional amendment making it illegal for her to marry the woman she loves.
Fifteen years ago, the liberal consensus was justifiably hysterical over the seemingly endless abuses perpetrated by a man who didn't win the popular vote (sound familiar?). Now, a war criminal who let an American city drown, and whose profligate spending and cruel austerity policies helped bring the global economy to the brink of collapse, is widely viewed on the left as a cute and cuddly painter whose (public) friendship with Michelle Obama is adorable.
People in power are not your friends. They have power over you. They can kill you. They can kill you with a drone strike. They can kill you with a search warrant. They can kill you with regulatory indifference. Not only do they have power over us, but the entire point of our constitutional system is that we have power over them. They work for us. Liberalism will not change until its attitudes towards those with immense responsibility change. In this brilliant video created by Rafael Shimunov, the people behind Ellen—not Ellen—are who matter when discussing who George W. Bush truly is.
The reliance on television to communicate and formulate liberal politics in the 21st century has created a result as superfluous as the medium itself. That’s not to say our endless array of political shows are inherently bad, just that they have more importance in creating our politics than they should, and the inherently detached dynamic we all have with TV has bled into our relationship with politics. Between Stewart, Colbert (the best of the bunch), Maher (who’s our Rush Limbaugh), Bee, Oliver for a summer, Klepper, Wilmore, Myers, Oliver for good, watered-down Colbert, Kimmel sometimes, Aaron Sorkin, SNL and the entire MSNBC-industrial complex, liberals have taken politics and made it into a big TV show. This detachment from the sausage that is the product of politics, and a focus on the theater of it all has trained our priorities on finding acceptable individuals to place in power, and away from those stuck under the boot of power.
TV in general has made our politics less substantive. This is not a phenomenon unique to the left. Studies show that all cable news poisons your brain and makes it harder to differentiate fact from opinion. But what is unique is the Marvel universe of TV characters we liberals have assembled to communicate our politics to the world. The conservative DC politics universe is stuck in the corners of the web and AM radio, while ours is on all the major TV networks. Through this process, we have misplaced our loyalty with those on our screens, instead of those in the everyday struggle.
Ellen the person has been in our homes for decades, and she seems exceedingly pleasant. She has done many good things, but this was not one of them. The reason her sins can be forgiven is that they did not rise to the evil of mass murder, and she has plenty of time to learn and grow from her mistakes. Using the idiot Bush child as a proxy to demonstrate how open-minded you are is probably not the comparison a lot of your conservative friends would appreciate. It’s OK and healthy for liberals to be friends with conservatives. It’s not OK for anyone to be friends with people responsible for widespread pain and misery. The fact that this even must be stated in a (supposed) liberal political theater is troublesome.
Defending George W. Bush reinforces the notion that personality should trump outcomes when it comes to those who hold the world in their hands. The Obama-Obama-Trump voter happened because they did not think that liberal America was listening to their problems—or even cared about them—and even as the 2020 election ramps up, many in privileged liberal positions are doubling down on the same hubristic mistakes that led to the OOT voter, despite the vast majority of us earnestly trying to learn from the collective liberal/leftist failure that was 2016.
Who cares if George W. Bush is a nice person? There’s no doubt in my mind that he and I could have a fun and engaging conversation on one of both his and mine’s true loves: baseball. But I also know that he murdered hundreds of thousands of people in a senseless colonialist war driven by greed, and the 2008 crisis robbed me and my generation of tens of thousands of dollars (at least) in career earning potential. Giving voice to the people whose voices he silenced should be the priority in any interaction with W., and by defending him as a nice guy, you are actively stating that fact is more important than the totality of lives that he destroyed. There is a direct line between George W. Bush’s presidency and Donald Trump, and if liberals cannot see that, then we are doomed to lose the orange hobgoblin for eternity as punishment for not learning our lesson to put down the remote and focus on who politics truly affects.
At the end of the day, we are products of our environment. Focusing on the behavior of individuals instead of the immense power of systems is the exact thing I’m arguing against doing here. These shows are entertaining, and it’s not destructive to our politics to consume them—what is destructive is providing them with the level of importance we have placed upon them. Jon Stewart becoming the most trusted news anchor in America on a show that came on after puppets making prank phone calls can only happen in a world abandoned by major media and horribly distorted by TV. The inadequacy of American education is well-documented, and we only know what we are taught, and what we are told by our major media is an overwhelmingly white, male upper-class viewpoint that does not represent most people’s reality, as Carla Murphy wrote in Dissent Magazine:
In sum, up and down the class ladder, all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk. Saturday Night Live, in the tense weeks before November 2016, featured Tom Hanks as a stereotypical Southern red neck, the only white contestant, on Black Jeopardy. The skit captures a lonely, almost shunned idea: that there’s more crawl space between same-class racial groups than is popularly imagined or broadcast. I crave a news media that explores that territory. Such an evolution won’t come from existing institutions, however. The weaponization of identity and foreignness in this presidential election cycle is already making past dog whistles seem quaint. Yet newsrooms, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis, are 77 percent white. After two decades of consolidation, downsizing, and buyouts, they also tend to be middle-class and up. At worst, they are out of touch; at best, short-handed and unprepared.
Let me end this blog with a quick trip to the near future: 2031. The cost of resettling all the refugees from Miami and New Orleans is ballooning, parts of Arizona have become unlivable on some summer days, and we’re all losing our minds over President Kid Rock nuking Manitoba all because they tweeted out a joke about his music—all the while, our favorite talk show hosts lament the “goofy, but at least somewhat more predictable days” of wacky ‘ol President Trump.
Sure, that last part sounds impossibly preposterous, but liberals who now look at George W. Bush favorably, I beg of you: please travel back to 2007 in your mind, and tell yourself that 12 years later you will be defending the man who is currently bringing about the economic apocalypse, all because he seems like a nice guy—and besides, at least he isn’t as bad as President You’re Fired—and think about how you would react. We are all frogs in boiling water, and it is high time that we stopped trying to make friends with the water and just jumped out of the damn pot already.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.