With his campaign in the throes of its death rattle, a frustrated Marco Rubio recently lamented that modern media covers politics largely as entertainment. The ill-fated Rubio is correct, but there are greater machinations at play here that signal a more troubling reality. Media doesn’t cover politics just as entertainment: Everything is now entertainment, because America may very well be in moral, political and intellectual decline.
This assertion is not to say that the country has just now reached a point where it rests on pillars of depravity. The unforgettable slaughter of indigenous Americans, enslavement of Africans, marginalization of women, persecution of immigrants, religious intolerance, segregation, homophobia, maddening incarceration rates, creation and condemnation of the poor, military interventions, empire building reminiscent of Rome, and other atrocities prove America’s moral compass has not always pointed true.
All the while, some Americans have resisted. From Lydia Maria Child to Shirley Chisholm, that resistance has been present. It is needed now just as much as ever. The brief mention of Rome is not accidental. Not only does the United States flex a level of military muscle relative to the rest of the world not seen since the apex of the Roman Empire, it has become the modern Rome in other troubling ways as well. In “Twilight of American Culture,” Morris Berman makes a convincing argument that America resembles ancient Rome not only by imposing itself on the rest of the world militarily, but also by entertaining its population to death at home.
Berman notes that America is developing into Rome immediately preceding its decline in four key ways. Both experienced: (1) accelerating social and economic inequality; (2) declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems; (3) rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding and general intellectual awareness; and (4) spiritual death — the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing of it in formulas (clichés, media slogans, political sound-bites, etc.).
Berman opines in one of his most powerful passages that once a nation reaches this point, the “culture no longer believes in itself, so it typically undertakes phony or misguided wars, or promotes its symbols and slogans all the more. As the organizational costs rise, yielding increasingly smaller benefits, so does the formalism, the pomp and circumstance. Just as the jaded crowds of ancient Rome zoned out on bread and circuses, Hollywood makes Rocky-type films, rerunning tired old formulas, but nevertheless, these are box office hits. And gladiatorial extravaganzas, as well as the ‘Rambofication’ of culture, are sure signs of spiritual death.”
The spiritual death of America has obvious political consequences. The fascination with an entertainer as presidential candidate and attacking one another at political rallies make sense. This theory’s critics will say there is nothing new about this. To a degree, they are correct. To be sure, fisticuffs have been a part of American politics for a long time. For example, people openly fought at debates between Illinois senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as they sparred over slavery in 1858. The problem now is there is no Lincoln in the political field. The clashes at Donald Trump rallies are not isolated spectacles — America itself has become spectacle.
In this melee, a large percentage of citizens have lost faith in politics altogether. Those who are still engaged are searching for footing. Sadly, neither major political party has offered solid ground for some time. The unfortunate legacies of Bill Clinton’s triangulation and the Democratic Leadership Council’s fascination with appealing to a “broader base” all but decimated the left wing of the party and rendered it little more than a smoldering husk. Meanwhile, Republicans and their simplistic rhetoric, class-based policy making, race baiting, and nauseatingly xenophobic political agendas have become increasingly retrograde and toxic.
In this environment of foolish myopia, narrow political dogma, narcissism, and cultural death, men like Trump rise and reason and hope fall. So, here we are. This is our lot. But just as Trump has energized the most wanton elements on the right, Bernie Sanders and others are forcing the Democrats’ hand and awakening millions of disaffected progressives on the other side. What I and other independents on the left are saying to the Democrats is simple, “Stand up and fight, damn you!” And if the conservatives are right and God is really screwed up enough to be on their side (which I doubt) — fight Him, too!
Ricky L. Jones is chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @DrRickyLJones.