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The Benjamin Button Election

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The combination of self-broadcasting systems with recession panic also begets an exaggerated emotionalism. Shirky points out that the Internet is already inherently an enabler of anger, because it combines group activity and speed. (“As a species, we’re bad at thinking quickly,” he notes, “but we’re good at feeling quickly.”) Would the viral video of Mike Castle getting lectured by a birther last summer have been quite so viral if times were comfortable? (“I want my country back,” she screamed, to which Castle responded, “Uh, if you’re referring to the president there, he is a citizen of the United States.”) This anger and despair are also what makes it possible for Ron Johnson, the GOP Senate candidate in Wisconsin, to declare, “I don’t believe this election really is about details.” Facts don’t matter here, as Stephen Colbert would say. Feelings do. (Johnson’s currently up in the polls against Russ Feingold, who’s fluent in details.)

The Daily Me is also responsible for a huge amount of parochialism, making voters feel informed even when they are not. This is what Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, was really objecting to when he irritably complained about the “professional left” in August. He wasn’t putting it diplomatically, but he was basically trying to remind his base that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in their Google alerts, and without appreciating that fact, they were less likely to tolerate the messiness of governance. And at its worst, this parochialism lurches into plain misinformation. Read only far-right websites, and you’ll soon be convinced that TARP was the most costly, fiscally irresponsible maneuver of the Obama administration—and not that it has already essentially paid for itself.

Add this all up, and we are experiencing a pandemic of electoral innumeracy. Lulled by years of bottomless credit, we cannot shake from our heads the idea that we are entitled to certain comforts. We expect quicker fixes to this economy than may, alas, be feasible, and we believe intractable problems can be solved without sacrifice. If these are impossible demands, we would prefer not to know. The depth of entitlement out there is best exemplified by the bankers. “When are we going to stop whacking at the Wall Street piñata?” asked Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge-fund manager, at a recent town-hall event on CNBC with the president. Never mind that Obama bailed out Wall Street to the tune of $700 billion, or that bankers are about to get massive bonuses. That these people can’t understand how they’ve become piñatas is naïve. I don’t use naïve as pejorative here, either; it’s descriptive. These people are not a part of the reality-based community.

Reality-based thinking is generally a positive attribute in the electorate. But not reality-television-based thinking. And in many ways, it’s reality television that’s had the most interesting—and discernible—influence on this election. Specifically, it has set the stage for candidates like Christine O’Donnell, by far the most surreal figure in this year’s Dalí-like landscape of cracked eggs and elephants on stilts. Establishment conservatives are trying hard to minimize her significance because she lags by double digits in every poll. But as a cultural phenomenon, she’s the opposite of a freak occurrence. She’s exactly what you get when you have a culture that promotes gratuitous self-admiration, encouraging everyone to think of himself as a potential giant. People laughed when she released the “I’m you” ads. (As Kristen Wiig put it on Saturday Night Live: “I’m you, and just like you, I have to constantly deny that I’m a witch.”) But “I’m you” could just as well serve as the tagline for every reality show on TV. In fact, congressional candidate Duffy is an actual alumnus of MTV’s The Real World: Boston (and his wife was on The Real World: San Francisco). The glorification of amateurs is exactly what propelled Joe the Plumber—who wasn’t even a licensed plumber—to celebrity status two years ago, earning him a slew of motivational-speaking gigs, a Nashville-based publicist, and, at one loopy moment, a possible record deal.

At almost any tea-party rally, you’ll now find people wearing Joe the Plumber T-shirts. It’s their own image, not the Capitol’s, that the ralliers see in the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. “I cannot tell you how many local candidates I have met along the campaign trail who have told me that my race, my candidacy, has inspired them to run,” O’Donnell told a tea-party rally in Delaware two months ago. “That you don’t need to be part of the Establishment, you don’t need to be an anointed one. You just need to be passionate, you need to be able to sacrifice for a cause and have principles that you are willing to defend.”


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