(Kathryn Cramer Brownell, assistant professor of history at Purdue University, is author of the new book, “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.” The opinions expressed here are her own.)
By Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Aug 7 (Reuters) - Thursday night’s entertainment programming featured the bombastic Donald Trump in the Republican primary debates, and the sarcastic Jon Stewart in his goodbye on The Daily Show. Though Stewart has repeatedly lampooned Trump’s candidacy, over the past 16 years, Stewart’s commentary has ingrained “showbiz politics” into all aspects of American political life - shaping an environment in which Trump’s candidacy can exist and thrive.
Over more than a half-century, television has essentially replaced the party as the modern political boss. Transforming political contests into an on-screen production has the democratic feeling of viewer participation - but it still maintains the reality of corporate control.
Stewart’s long successful run and Trump’s six-week surge demonstrate how American voters have come to expect political discussions and debates to mirror prime-time TV entertainment programming. Though the Trump show and the Daily Show both present populist, anti-establishment points of view, their use of entertainment provides a way to actually reinforcere the political and economic power of the establishment that both regularly admonish.
Beginning in the 1950s, media consultants encouraged parties to make television central to winning elections. In his landmark 1956 book, Professional Public Relations and Political Power, the Princeton political scientist Stanley Kelley Jr. observed that television forced candidates to confront a new party boss - one that did not doll out favors, jobs or bribes to win votes.
This party boss - whether an advertising executive, political consultant, or celebrity - played media games. Rather than stuffing ballot boxes, this party boss worked to “mold the mind of the voter” by connecting the presidential hopeful to audiences with spectacle. Electoral success seemed to hinge on the ability to produce a political production and create a celebrity persona for candidates.
This opened up the nomination process. It moved from party bosses sitting in the much-cited smoke-filled convention hall back rooms to a process that engages the wider public. In 1960, boyish Senator John F. Kennedy won the presidential nomination over the country’s most powerful Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, by appealing to primary voters as “Jack Kennedy fans.”
These “democratic events,” however, were also carefully orchestrated by JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, a former movie mogul. He used his privately funded version of a “Hollywood dream machine,” to elicit specific emotions and reactions from the American public.
During the 1966 California gubernatorial race, former screen actor Ronald Reagan framed himself as a “citizen politician.” His critique of New Deal policies stirred what commentators called a “Jacksonian chord in the public mind” - even as it was artfully crafted behind-the-scenes by his Kitchen Cabinet of wealthy California businessmen and developers.
Now, candidates are constructed in control rooms rather than smoke-filled rooms, creating a culture in which distrust of both the political and media establishment flourish.
Stewart’s legacy is that entertainment can provide a context for meaningful political conversations about the hypocrisy of elected officials and the distorting lens of cable news programs. On Thursday, Stephen Colbert celebrated how his mentor taught the Daily Show staff to discuss politics with clarity, intention and respect. But, Colbert also touched on how Stewart had gained power “in the realm of Washington politics and media” though his commentary. And he is right.
Entertainment has become central to the political establishment. Late night political comedy has created an opportunity for presidential contenders to overcome voter cynicism through performative politics. President Barack Obama, for example, made seven appearances on the Daily Show, and has worked diligently to convert Stewart’s viewers into Democratic voters.
Now on the campaign trail, Republican candidates are working to emulate Obama’s strategy - with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush slow-jamming the news on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Trump, well, being Donald Trump - the reality television star and now star of the GOP polls.
In this over-produced political environment, both Trump and Stewart appeal to the simultaneous public desire for authenticity and the expectation of entertainment in politics - which also requires an elaborate commercial production. “Showbiz politics,” which both men practice, appears to be more democratic through its appeal to a broader range of voters. Yet it also reflects a corporate media structure that relies on extensive funding and targeted market research.
More than 5 million viewers tuned into the debates on Thursday night - many expecting entertainment. After the debates, viewers watched Stewart’s last episode of Daily Show - many expected meaningful political discourse. The two programs are interconnected and mutually reinforce one another as well as the political and media establishment they each critique.
Though both are voicing frustrations with the status quo, their political style inherently encourages consumption, not necessarily activism. FOX News has served as an entertainment forum for conservative candidates, the Daily Show has served as an outlet for liberal frustrations.
With elaborate comedic productions, Stewart reminds audiences about the need to hold elected officials and reporters accountable for their actions. Liberally minded millennials consume his show as a form of political activism, just as conservatives consume entertainment-driven FOX News commentary and talk-radio shows as part of their political identity.
What is still unknown are the implications of this modern “showbiz politics” - in which politicians and journalists appeal to the public as media consumers first, voters second. It can serve to reinforce the dominant empires of entertainment with passive consumption. But it can also open paths for viewers to turn their cynicism into activism and finally demonstrate media’s democratic potential. (Kathryn Cramer Brownell)