Vox puerilis

A couple of weeks ago the CBC’s Neil Macdonald wrote a depressing (if unsurprising) editorial entitled “What America Isn’t Thinking” in which he used a Google Trends report as a proxy for the American span of attention.

Washington’s debt now equals the country’s entire annual economic output.

The debt in fact is mushrooming and, as America heads toward the debt wall, its political leaders are basically shouting foolishness at one another.

No one in a position of serious responsibility is saying what must be said and the vacuousness of the conversation is actually undermining global confidence in the dollar and hurting the American economy further. Yet it continues.

This country is a harsher, riskier place than the idealized version that still exists in the imagination.

So, back to the Google Trends.

On Tuesday, June 14, as all that dark news accumulated, the number one search item in America was “flag day.” (Tuesday was indeed flag day, a day on which Americans reflect about their flag.)

Search item number three was Fran Drescher, the nasally actress who played a nanny on some TV sitcom years ago. Number four was former KISS front man Gene Simmons, the guy with the really long tongue. Item 11 was heiress and reality TV star Tori Spelling. And so on.

Even for a man who the Washington political beat for a serious news organization, this couldn’t have been surprising. Magazine racks are predominantly entertainment news or celebrity gossip magazines. TV airwaves contain far more content about celebrity houses or gypsy weddings or cake bosses (whatever those are) than news. Hell, even most news channels aren’t really news broadcasts so much as they’re shrieking editorials. I assumed this was common knowledge, and that the general public is just easily distracted by bright shiny objects. Or NASCAR.

But Macdonald suggests something else, which I’d not really considered, but clearly should have: politicians like it that way, In fact, I would submit that no one in a position of power has any incentive to change this, because they all benefit. Obviously media companies are happy to have people consume their least complicated and most cheaply-made material. But Macdonald hypothesizes that the constant election cycle adds to the problem:

Can it be that the population of the richest, most powerful, most incredibly dynamic nation in history is actually that clueless? That unplugged from what is going on in their own world?

Yes, says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

It’s as though the American political rule has become: Tell the plebs what they want to believe, let them keep Googling Gene Simmons and kick the debt can down the road again. Somebody else can deal with it.

It’s what happens when a two-year election cycle guarantees a perpetual campaign. At least in a parliamentary democracy, a party that wins a majority has a year or two to do what actually has to be done.

So not only does no politician have to do anything substantial once elected, they needn’t even promise to do anything substantial to get elected…they simply have to spout whatever buzzwords and showy rhetoric gets them the most attention in the moment, all of which will quickly be forgotten once the new Survivor season starts. In fact, one could argue that, once elected, doing anything substantive works against a president’s midterm and re-election chances, since long-term change offers plenty of opportunity for short-term attack by one’s opponents.

Of course, it can’t be as simple as all that. Other factors surely come into play, like economic turmoil or plain old desire for change rather than the status quo (read: boredom) but I think Macdonald highlights a real problem.

By the way, lest anyone suspect that I would consider Canada immune from this, I don’t. We’re just as distracted by shiny objects. Maybe our much-maligned irregular elections may be of some benefit after all. Who knew?

Now, if you’ll all excuse me, Extreme Couponing is on.

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