Trevor Brookins

*Last week Standard and Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating to AA+. How did the country come to such a state? Because of the problem of raising the debt ceiling and the political machinations that accompanied the deal.

Soon after this country was founded politicians found themselves in two camps: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Just as it is true today the country had to choose an economic direction. The Federalists were in support of the economy being centered on international trade and shipping; the Democratic-Republicans were in favor of a national economy centered on domestic agribusiness. But ultimately the two sides were able to resolve pertinent debates, make the country work and put on a strong face to the rest of the world.

The same pattern repeated itself in the 19th century. Even as members of Congress were in bitter opposition to one another as some promoted a slave economy and others supported a free labor economy. Despite the fact that there were fistfights on the floor of Congress and death threats given, in the end politicians were always able to come to compromise and put on a strong face to the rest of the world.

The 20th century was no different. Liberals supported Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society while conservatives decried these policies as socialism. In the end they were able to put their differences aside and work together for the good of the country. The same pattern should be followed today. Unfortunately two obstacles make that impossible.

First, people became much more voyeuristic. One of the effects of reality television is that people want to see behind the scenes. It is not enough to watch a television drama about a restaurant owner, contemporary viewers expect a camera crew in a real kitchen filming a failing eatery complete with requisite shouting matches. Even one of the most popular and successful scripted shows on television “The Office” follows this formula with a faux documentary crew capturing the staff in candid moments.

This voyeurism extends to Congress with CSPAN and CSPAN2 – devoted to 24 hour coverage of Congress. At its inception CSPAN was an attempt at transparency in the democratic process. That would have been fine except for the fact Congressional debates should generally be sober and boring. In other words sessions of Congress should not be riveting television. But because of our culture of voyeurism CSPAN turned into a stage to be filled by politicians eager to enhance their reputations by bluster instead of legislation.

Second, as a direct result politicians became less likely to compromise. When there is always a camera around to capture how good/bad a job they are doing most politicians understood that any footage would eventually be seen by their constituents. Consequently they were campaigning at all times – which meant taking the most hard line stance possible.

This is why compromise is not reached as quickly or seamlessly today as it was in past generations. Cameras and the need to play to the cameras. And now that the people at Standard and Poor’s have seen what happens when the cameras are present (Liberals and conservatives can’t play nice with each other), they conclude (quite reasonably) that American politicians will have a hard time getting any legislation passed that will stimulate economic growth.

It would be great if the reality television fad would peter out. Unfortunately however, it looks like it’s here to stay, even if 99% of “reality” shows are just as scripted. Nevertheless it is imperative that our politicians understand that they are reality stars on television to entertain us; they are elected officials chosen to help direct society – an important difference.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected]