I rather dislike Jon Stewart. I find satirists such as him loathsome, but it is not his fault. He plays into and revels in the cynicism that has infected American politics for the last several decades. Instead of trying to create anything or contribute to the debate, he mocks politicians, policy makers, and the media for “failing” or doing ridiculous things. Such comedy itself is not wrong, of course, and does help lighten the mood of the day. But it does reveal something about American culture: Mr. Stewart is seen as a leading “public intellectual” when all he does is satirize.
Satire has become the new medium of trusted news. This is disturbing.
Jon Stewart’s television show is not the only medium to expound this cynicism in American politics. Two other hit shows, Scandal and House of Cards, have politicians behaving in the most onerous ways as if it perfectly normal. Scandal’s protagonist regularly protects politicians that kill people while she has a torrid affair with the President of the United States. House of Cards has a Majority Whip in the House of Representatives lead a Machiavellian coup that gets him both the Vice Presidency and, eventually, the Presidency. Along the way, he kills a dog, a fellow Congressman, and a journalist. His wife threatens to kill a woman’s unborn fetus unless she capitulates to her demands.
These are just a handful of the things that happen on these shows, but it demonstrates how Americans accept that politics is a corrupt arena that does nothing but attract loathsome, evil people obsessed with power. Of course, this idea goes back even to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and All the King’s Men, two American classic films from the 1930’s and 40’s. Jeff Smith must lead a filibuster against the corrupt deal between Senator Paine and Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith, and Willie Stark starts out an “honest man” in All the King’s Men but becomes the most corrupt man in Louisiana.
The twentieth century saw the rise of antipathy towards hypocrisy. It is better to be an evil man than to be a hypocrite, because then you are “true to yourself.” When you are true to yourself, then good things will flow. You must follow your principles, for then you will not be false to others. But this is not what Polonius means when says, “To thine own self be true” (Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3). What Polonius meant was that you have to take care of yourself first so that you are capable of aiding others; his words were not New Age nonsense about just being whoever you want to be.
All of this cynicism about American politics has had deleterious effects upon the republic and republican virtues. Voters do not turn out to participate because they believe corruption has taken hold in politics. In the 2008 presidential election, only 57% of the voting age population participated. The results are even more abysmal in local elections. Los Angeles only had 21% of the voting age population vote in the 2013 mayoral race, the lowest in 100 years, and from 1996-2011 turnout was only 25.8% in 340 cities across the country for their mayoral races.
How do we, as informed citizens, attempt to thwart this cynicism that debases our republic? It’s simple. Say to those who accept this cynicism, “Buck up, sissypants.” Politicians neither have to be perfect human beings nor openly wicked for the republic to work. It takes great men and women of intelligence, valor, and honor to be extraordinary statesmen and lead the country appropriately. Sadly, these are rare in history, but we can at least hold politicians to higher standards knowing that not all of them are good because our expectations will make them behave better.
This concept of public accountability is what our Founders truly understood. They didn’t go out like the demagogues that promised them bread and circuses. No demagogues need apply in a true republic. Washington was well aware of the myth of Cincinnatus, a Roman dictator that gave up his power after only a few weeks when he defeated the Aequians: Washington gave his sword to the Congress at the end of the Revolutionary War. In the ceremony, he takes the sword that symbolizes his power as the victorious general and surrenders it to the people and the people’s representatives. Even Jefferson retired to Monticello and private life after his presidency. He did not go around making public speeches because it was very important symbolically.
There is no doubt that these men wanted to be president, wanted power. They were not pure and innocent, but they understood that they had to behave better in public for the good of the country. America’s ideals and expectations at the time required them to do so.
How could we possibly put power into the hands of politicians that are even the smallest bit corrupt? Because in a republic, such men will lead. You do not go out and seek public office, flattering the public to get power. You actively work for the betterment of the republic, even if you do not always behave this way privately. Some might call this hypocrisy because the politician may not be virtuous, but if the politician is compelled to act virtuously then their inner musings do not matter. Enough with the cynicism. Take politics seriously and engage the public sphere because the republic demands an attuned citizenry.
Buck up, sissypants.