The Politics of Everything

I miss the days when late night comedians didn’t talk about politics all the time.

In September of last year, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a column that garnered a lot of news. Entitled “Clinton’s Samantha Bee Problem,” he lifted up Bee of an example of how the entertainment industry has gone from being slightly left-leaning to becoming full on liberal activists. He explained that where once there was a David Letterman or Jay Leno offering mostly apolitical monologues, there are now late night hosts that are basically de facto explanatory journalists:

On late-night television, it was once understood that David Letterman was beloved by coastal liberals and Jay Leno more of a Middle American taste. But neither man was prone to delivering hectoring monologues in the style of the “Daily Show” alums who now dominate late night. Fallon’s apolitical shtick increasingly makes him an outlier among his peers, many of whom are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

Some of them have better lines than others, and some joke more or hector less. But to flip from Stephen Colbert’s winsome liberalism to Seth Meyers’s class-clown liberalism to Bee’s bluestocking feminism to John Oliver’s and Trevor Noah’s lectures on American benightedness is to enter an echo chamber from which the imagination struggles to escape.

It isn’t just late-night TV. Cultural arenas and institutions that were always liberal are being prodded or dragged further to the left. Awards shows are being pushed to shed their genteel limousine liberalism and embrace the race-gender-sexual identity agenda in full. Colleges and universities are increasingly acting as indoctrinators for that same agenda, shifting their already-lefty consensus under activist pressure.

Douthat continues by saying this sets up a false sense of strength on the part of liberals, who live in their own bubble unaware that the other 300 million or so Americans might not feel the same way they do:

For the left, these are clear signs of cultural gains, cultural victory. But the scale and swiftness of those victories have created two distinctive political problems for the Democratic Party.

First, within the liberal tent, they have dramatically raised expectations for just how far left our politics can move, while insulating many liberals from the harsh realities of political disagreement in a sprawling, 300-plus million person republic. Among millennials, especially, there’s a growing constituency for whom right-wing ideas are so alien or triggering, left-wing orthodoxy so pervasive and unquestioned, that supporting a candidate like Hillary Clinton looks like a needless form of compromise…

I’ve been thinking about this as we face yet another attempt by the GOP to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Back in the Spring, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel shared the story of his recently born son who needed heart surgery. He used this as a reason to keep the Affordable Care Act. He started a conversation with Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy on the issue. Now that Cassidy is behind a health care bill that would repeal the Affordable Care Act and give less health care, Kimmel has responded by calling the Senator a liar. He is now using his show as a platform to oppose the Graham-Cassidy Bill going as far as giving phone numbers of Senators to call. Politics and entertainment are now entertwined:

Kimmel is a host who once boasted that an episode of his show would be “Trump-free” — and who once announced that “if anyone says the name of the orange-colored man with the Russian boyfriend, they will have to put $100 in that jar that Guillermo is holding right there.” Now, though, the politics have knocked on his own door, at his own home, for his own son. And he is rising to meet them — another late-night host who is embracing the idea that politics and entertainment are, at this moment in America, tightly tangled together. On Tuesday, at the end of his monologue, Kimmel listed the medical interest groups that have opposed Graham-Cassidy. He shared a number that viewers can call to tell their representatives that they oppose the bill. He took for granted that anger can be its own political force.

Now, you should know that I am opposed to the Graham-Cassidy Bill. Being right of center, I don’t think Graham and Cassidy are trying to be mean-spirited, but they are part of a problem in the modern GOP; a party that is woefully out of step with the larger public and really misunderstanding the conservatism of Ronald Reagan.

That said, I for one am getting tired of entertainers becoming more and more politicized. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have political opinions, but there is something polarizing about Kimmel’s fight. He, along with others entertainers like Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers vent anger against Trump, which tends to say to the wider society that said entertainer is on the liberal side. This kind of willingness to bear ideological identities started in earnest under President Obama, when liberal entertainers glomed on to the President. Now that Trump is the Commander in Chief, enterainment is becoming part of the resistance.

There is a sense that these entertainers only belong to half of the country and not all of it. It might make my liberal friends excited, but the thing is, having one more entertainer speaking condescendingly to conservatives means that you lose someone that could be persuaded.

But the other part of this is that it would be nice to have places in our society that aren’t touched by politics. The problem today is that more and more, politics seems to invade areas of our life that should be politics free most of the time. We can’t watch the Grammys or the MTV Video Awards without some reference to politics. As much as I support transgender Americans serving in the military, I was bothered that the MTV Video Awards made a statement in favor of transgender soldiers. I didn’t watch it, but there was a feeling wishing that there was less partisan politics in our entertainment.

But there is also a danger here for liberals. As comedians become less middle-of-the-road and more partisan, they risk causing the half the public that doesn’t agree with them to make their feelings known at the ballot box. Douthat again:

At the same time, outside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion — which may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.

This is where I insert that tired phrase, “This is why Trump won.” People don’t want to be told they are bad people for not thinking the same way. They don’t want an angry comedian yelling on the TV. Kimmel’s rants might have a positive effect in stopping Graham-Cassidy, but they also help lead to the breakdown of our common civic life. Writer Damon Linker explains on how this breakdown of the common good has consequences:

The damage to our civic life is real. The more seemingly impartial public figures are accused of covert bias, the more citizens begin to suspect that everything is political, that no one ever rises above partisan passions. And the more citizens begin to doubt the possibility of rising above partisan passions, the less they try to do so themselves — or to expect any better from public officials. Everyone has a political agenda. No one is fair-minded or concerned with the impartial truth.

When everything is political, nothing is held in common, admired, and understood in the same terms by all. And a nation in which nothing is held in common, admired, and understood in the same terms by all is less a community than an aggregate of warring factions jostling for advantage, striving for a total victory in which those on the other side of the battle are permanently vanquished.

I really hope that Graham-Cassidy doesn’t pass because it’s a bad bill. But I also wish that entertainers like Kimmel would stick to being comedians. In these divisive times, we need to be able to laugh. We have enough anger, thanks.