The 2010 midterm elections were "American Idol" for mean people. Voters, their rage founded more on mood of the state than state of affairs, threw down their ballots, cheered on their contestant and will now resume lives unconnected with the choices they've made.
They've had the vicarious thrill of voting for the winner, or the satisfying martyrdom of backing a loser, but have so compartmentalized politics from their life ambitions that, as meaningful decisions go, they could as meaningfully have entered the Irish Sweepstakes as a voting booth.
This is not a terribly new situation. American elections have rich tradition of bone-ignorance and blood hatred dating to the days of Jefferson and Adams. Andrew Jackson's wife was pilloried as an adulteress and bigamist.
What is very new is the velocity.
Flash ahead two centuries and consider Joe Miller, the Tea Party candidate nominated for the Republican Senate nomination in Alaska. Like John Adams he is possessed of an ungovernable hatred of the press.
He proved not only uninformed about how to govern a nation and, as a consequence, offered voters little more memory of him than his bodyguards handcuffing a reporter who tried to ask him a question and stood like mob goons in a school hallway and tried to order the rest of the media not to record the event.
[Speaking of the Tea Party: a BBC radio reporter wandered through Pittsburgh just before the election and created an 8.5-minute segment called "Tea Party: Here to Stay?"]
In Delaware, surly voters nominated a Senate candidate who later had to deny being a witch and who never did explain all the funny business about paying her living expenses from her campaign funds. Christine O'Donnell may not be a witch, but she's not a senator, either. A major contribution to the art of amorality was offered by the website Gawker, which ran an anonymous account by a young Federal Reserve employee about a supposed, drunken and, ultimately sexless, one-night-stand with Ms. O'Donnell.
This was of no political consequence, told us nothing about the candidate other than that, perchance, she is a human being with all the attendant frailties, and fitted perfectly with the 2010 decision-making process: hate your opponent, shame if possible, destroy if convenient.
This clock has been winding for the past decade, when Rupert Murdoch, a man who took U.S. citizenship so he could own television stations, threw out the pretense and opened a cable channel that is little more than an adjunct of the right-wing, much like a 19th-century newspaper.
This year, Fox not only tilted toward conservative candidates, but its leading talker, Glenn Beck, sponsored rallies to ramp up the cause of the Tea Partiers. The campaign became indistinguishable from the people presumably covering it.
Fox's counterpart, MSNBC, seems content to fill the other market niche. Over the weekend, its primo anchor, Keith Olbermann, was suspended without pay for donating more than $7,000 to political candidates — two of them on the day they appeared as guests on his "news" show. Monday, after much public angst, he was reinstated.
As newspapers decline and broadcasters embrace the kind of biased villainy of which they were at first falsely charged 30 years ago, as the "press" becomes "the media," it is easy to sell soap and cars to the anger market. We have replaced the grief pornography of car accidents and missing children with the anger porn of people whose real platform appears to be that everything can be made right if only they can get on television.
I have rolled this matter over in my head all weekend because of a peculiar argument I had with two of my closest friends from childhood. They are both now college professors – one an expert in Chinese culture and religion, the other in physics. They were outraged at Olbermann's suspension and seemed a bit taken aback that I declined to be.
My explanation was that he is an employee of NBC News and even news "commentators" know they're not supposed to have a financial stake in the contests they cover. The solution, I said, was not to replace Fox news with Faux news; it was to give people the information they need to be useful citizens in a democracy. We can celebrate the boisterousness of our elections, but we only get something out of them if the boisterousness takes us somewhere other than the same, sad circle.
One of my friends replied that the need was for to stomp back hard on the right wing and that I should "holster up" or stay in my recliner. I own neither a recliner nor a holster. I prefer my boots for walking.
My other old friend declared this: "objectivity is a luxury that has gone out the window long ago. We need counterweight."
That objectivity, or an attempt at it, is now a luxury is an amazing prospect. That its corollary — fairness — seems also to have suffered defenestration, seems to have gone unnoticed.
I am reminded of the day 27 years ago that I interviewed an economist about some social sciences seminar he attended.
He spoke of some presentation that outraged "the Marxist geographers." I thought he was kidding, but he assured me not. There are geographers who inform their chart making with the science of the bearded German. I suppose that they have a good time with Austrian economists who think the free market holds mystical properties that must not be sullied by human reason.
We are in an age of ideology, but it is far beyond the left-right paradigm. It is a contest between competing angers and, at some point, it would be helpful — and I never dreamed I'd say this — for everybody to have a large, steaming mug of calm-the-hell-down.