I have a longstanding weakness as a sociologist of media. There are often developments in media popular culture that I know are important, and to which I know I should pay close attention, but I just can’t stomach to read, listen or watch, leading me to be out of the loop. It started with the celebrity gossip in the supermarket scandal sheets. I could skim People magazine only with great difficulty. I remember my dismay when I did review (there were not enough words to say read) the celebrity treatment of Lech Walesa in which it was hard to discern why he was the subject of such close attention. I hit a severe watchers block when it came to the TV program Dallas. Then there were the worlds of Talk Radio and Reality TV. One of the biggest errors of my scholarly life was not paying close attention to the news craze about the OJ Simpson trial, when lack of patience with the silliness of “all OJ all the time” led me to overlook the importance of the racial politics of that media circus. I compensate for my low tolerance for junk by reading up, learning from scholars who reported on and analyzed what I had avoided. From the classic by Ien Ang, Watching Dallas, to Josh Gamson’s telling Freaks Talk Back.
But I am now proud of myself. I have finally followed a TV Reality Show from beginning to end, watching the Republican primary debates. All the elements are there, most apparent in the rise and fall of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and New Gingrich, each a worthy contestant, while an extremely unlikely President.
Bachmann gained limited attention playing in Iowa state fair, a local girl with a solid record of absurd assertions in and outside of the Halls of Congress, running for re-election and to be President of the United States.
Rick Perry seemed to be the charmed candidate until he opened his mouth and little or nothing came out during the debates, a promising star chosen from central casting, but just couldn’t act.
Acting was the strong forte of Cain and Gingrich. Cain knew little about his main issue, the economy other than a simple and appealing slogan. 999 the answer to any and all problems. Once he became the leading not Romney his ignorance became too much even for Republican primary voters, who have been trained by Fox to not pay much attention to inconvenient facts.
Gingrich, on the other hand, played the role of the man who knew too much. He was the master of dogmatic assertion, had a multitude of formed opinions, often in contradiction with each other, could think on his feet with dazzling speed and was a master of appealing to the prejudices of his audience. He started by limiting his demagoguery to the media and Obama, “the greatest food stamp President,” using racism, Islamophobia and parochialism in a way that the primary voters broadly approved. But then in the tradition of McCarthy, he turned on his Republican competition with fatal results.
Romney successfully fought back last night. But please note, the debate was not about substance but form, and the studio audience which bolstered Gingrich in South Carolina, turned against him last night when Romney put in a credible performance. He had a new debating coach in preparation for the season’s finale and he showed himself to be an able student.
The show is over. Newt Gingrich, the last not-Romney standing, was defeated. Mitt won. He won the Reality Show, that is. The race for the nomination is not yet decided. It is pretty clear that Romney will collect the plurality of delegates to the convention, but a combination of Paul, Santorum and Gingrich, still, may block him from a clean victory. There may be real politics at the nominating convention for the first time in decades.
And while the show is over, what it has concealed is not, the real debate in the Republican Party: the tension between fundamental commitments to the free market and to conservative values. Paul and Santorum work out the tension in opposing ways, with Paul emphasizing the market, Santorum, values. Romney tries to fudge the difference without the personal charm of a Reagan or the demagogic force of a Gingrich. Romney showed some previously unseen talents last night, but I wonder how he will play with a real political opponent, with a competing political vision. Such a debate will be more interesting than Reality TV, which still turns me off.