Sometime in the 1960 or perhaps the 1970s, I remember, my father and I were discussing politics. "One thing we expected," he said, "was that television would create a great demagogue. But it hasn't happened. Apparently they lose the appeal when you can see them up close." He had lived through Hitler and McCarthy, of course, so he had seen demagogues in action. But his observation was, sadly, naive, because he thought that technology, rather than the age we lived in, was the critical factor. Having experienced demagoguery as a young man, he feared it for the rest of his life. In fact, the leadership of his parents' generation and the sacrifices that his own had made had given the country a certain political stability that made it very difficult, if not impossible, for demagogues to emerge. Now, 40 or 50 years later, that stability has disappeared--and television has produced the worst demagogue in the history of American politics.
In the postwar world, the government of the United States enjoyed extraordinary prestige at home and abroad thanks to extraordinary achievements. Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s had defined a new role for government, including both the regulation of the economy and the provision of adequate means of sustenance for the whole population. Even before entering the Second World War, in his January 1941 State of the Union address, he had proclaimed those goals for the whole world in the four freedoms. The American victory in the Second World War, followed by our role in the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, had made the US the leader of the free world, and opposition to our world role had been forced onto the narrowest margins of our politics. President Eisenhower in the 1950s had not attempted to undo any major New Deal reforms, and he had undertaken another gigantic federal project, the Interstate Highway System. The government was also slowly addressing the issue of equal rights for black Americans. In addition, the trust which the government had earned was shared by nearly all our major institutions, including business and labor unions, the press, and academia. The three television networks, both understood their novel and enormous power and were careful not to use it for any controversial purpose, either artistic or political. As a result, they drew a great deal of criticism from intellectual Americans who regarded their fare as pablum.
As David Brooks--who sounds more and more like he has read Strauss and Howe, although he never mentions them--remarked today, the nation, led by my own generation, has been on a crusade for unlimited individual freedom for the last half century, with the left focusing on personal behavior and the right focusing on economic freedom. In the last 40 years technology, including both cable television and the internet, has favored that crusade, giving us all the opportunity to watch and listen only to those we agree with, and to express ourselves with complete freedom before the whole world. The danger that television might appeal to the lowest common denominator among us, and that images rather than words, might become the currency of opinion, has now become real, and perhaps mortal. In 1940-1, when the United States had to deal with the Second World War, Americans could hear radio addresses by cabinet members, legislators and prominent citizens on their radios every week. Now tweets are driving a presidential campaign, while viral videos are threatening to set off terrible racial conflict. The expectation that politicians, the press, and the public itself will observe certain standards of decorum has evaporated. For the first time in our history--literally--a pathological narcissist stands within reach of the White House, based, apparently, on appeals to his countrymen's raw emotions and resentments.
Last Monday's debate--in which I believe Hillary Clinton put on the best public performance of her career--has apparently done Trump a good deal of harm. Although fivethirtyeight.com still forecasts a close election, Clinton's chances of victory have improved rapidly over the last five days, and are once again over 60%. But a Clinton victory will not solve all our problems. The solution of any of our very real problems, domestic and foreign, requires a certain patience, concentration and realism which we now seem to lack. She, like Barack Obama, will be a divisive figure, and the Republicans will be strong enough to stand in the way of most of what she wants to do. I believe the trends of the last half century must be reversed if our government can once again function effectively, but I do not now see how this will be done.