It’s almost become a stock gripe for talk-radio hosts to disparage folks who aren’t as up on politics as they are. When President Obama was being ushered in two years ago, nationally syndicated talk host Neal Boortz said, “Let me point out the fact that on Tuesday night more Americans were tuned in to watch ‘American Idol’ than watched the inauguration festivities. Hopefully you aren’t surprised.” Actually, I wasn’t surprised one bit. Most Americans simply aren’t into politics to the degree Boortz would prefer. This doesn’t make them bad Americans. It actually makes them quite normal.
While both Boortz and I would prefer an American populace better informed about their government, there is something truly strange about people who live and breathe the political to the degree that we do, in much the same way that there’s something strange about people who are overly obsessed with football. Normal people can watch their favorite sports team, cheer each victory, get ribbed for each defeat and then go on with their day–weirdos let an athletic competition dictate their mood for an entire week. Normal people can pay casual attention to politics, hope for the best, take stride in the worst and go on about their lives–weirdos let an election ruin the next four years of their lives, bitch about it on the radio three hours a day, five days a week while also criticizing everyone else for their lack of bitching.
Conservative author Russell Kirk once noted that politics is the preoccupation of the quarter-educated, and while his quip was aimed at academic-minded folks who might focus on politics at the expense of the arts or philosophy, politically obsessed people do often become preoccupied with the peripheral at the expense of what should be principal concerns. Presumably, one cares about politics because he believes favoring certain political parties, movements, or figures might lead to a better future for himself, his family, and friends. If this is not one’s first concern, then why care about politics at all? And yet, I’ve heard of conservatives practically disowning their children for voting for Obama, and I’ve heard liberals describe their Sarah Palin–admiring friends in near subhuman terms. I don’t have much use for Obama or Palin, but what my friends or family think of either is of far less importance than my actual friends and family.
We live in a country blessed with enough material comforts that Americans can afford to not worry about politics at all. A free election in Iraq is a big deal because the conditions are tough, it might actually change something and Iraqis rarely get to do it. Free elections in the United States are less of a big deal because nothing ever really changes despite the fact that we do it all the time. Many of the people watching American Idol on inauguration night likely didn’t buy into Obama’s “hope” or “change” anymore than Boortz did, but unlike the talk host nor did they likely believe the other side offered anything more worthwhile. These “American Idol” fans may indeed be intellectually lazy and they may be ill-informed–but they might also be far saner than their critics are willing to admit.
For example, I’ve often been accused of being a contrarian, typically by fellow conservatives, due to my habit of beating up on the Republican Party or the mainstream conservative movement. But the exact opposite is true–a right-wing pundit like Sean Hannity is a contrarian, in that his daily job is to contradict anything any Democrat does. A left-wing pundit like Keith Olbermann is a contrarian, in that his daily job is to contradict anything any Republican does. My belief in constitutional, limited government is uniform and bipartisan, and I criticize both sides to the extent that they don’t live up to my conservative ideal–which is almost never. For the life of me, I can’t understand conservatives who don’t do this, and to the degree that so many are satisfied with obsessing over so many meaningless two-party horse races, I’d just as soon join my “American Idol” watching neighbors on the couch. Hope and change-the channel.
Over the years, I’ve been chastised for “wasting my time” in my support for genuinely conservative, yet unconventional third party candidates or renegade Republicans like Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul, yet cannot fathom a greater waste of time than constantly championing GOP politicians who are indistinguishable from the Democrats. Normal people seem to instinctively know not to expect much out of the conventional two-party system. My apolitical friends probably think I’m wasting my time as much as many of us-the politically-obsessed-think they are insufficiently political. And while being civic-minded should always be encouraged, the extent to which so many people don’t care is not nearly as unreasonable as the hyper-political like to pretend. American Idol might be a waste of time. But in many ways, so is American politics.
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