Belmont Club

Cutting Loose

The hardest thing about the recently concluded debate among Republican presidential hopefuls was determining where the stage ended and where the audience began. In theaters, the demarcation is usually clear. Politico writes:

[A]t crucial moments, CNBC’s questioners, not the candidates, became the focus of discussion.

The media have always been part of the story, but in the past their role was conventionally regarded as that of the omniscient narrator:

The role of the omniscient narrator is to chronicle the events of a story in an impartial way. He or she has full access to the events and dialogue occuring in the narrative, rendering his or her account the most complete and accurate. This all-knowing, all-seeing narrator type jumps from scene to scene, following characters throughout a story and assessing the progress of the narrative.

Such narrators provide a story with a comforting certainty so that we have something to hang onto amid the multiplying mysteries of the coming plot. “This is the city, Los Angeles, California, and I wear a badge.” We start with the fact of Joe Friday.

But on the occasion of the Republican debate, when Ted Cruz accused the CNBC debate moderators of being partisan hacks, the play broke its bounds. Cruz told us Joe Friday doesn’t exist. In case anyone missed the point, Marco Rubio looked straight at the moderators and let them have it straight:

I know the Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media who every single day. And I’ll tell you why. Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee. She admitted she had sent e-mails to her family saying, “Hey, this attack at Benghazi was caused by al-Qaeda-like elements.” She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

It was the week she got exposed as a liar. It was the week that she got exposed as a liar … But she has her super PAC helping her out, the American mainstream media.

Naturally, there was no love lost from the professional pundity. Ezra Klein of Vox (the explainer) argued that the misgivings of Cruz and Rubio were merely sour grapes, the result of candidates facing tough questions to which they had no answers:

Cruz’s attack on the moderators was smart politics — but it was almost precisely backwards. The questions in the CNBC debate, though relentlessly tough, were easily the most substantive of the debates so far. And the problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that’s because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair.

Yet that is beside the point. What Cruz and Rubio were challenging were the rules of the play. The pertinent fact is that when an arbiter is no longer accepted by both parties as impartial, the conversation may continue, but only as argument, no longer as arbitration. The narrative collapses, unconstrained by the covers of a book. The swordplay on stage which once the audience could safely regard as spectators has suddenly erupted into a real fight in their midst.

It’s interesting to contrast Cruz and Rubio’s challenge to the passive, almost deferential way with which Mitt Romney accepted the sandbagging of Candy Crowley in 2012 during his debate with Barack Obama. That moment may be remembered by some for its infamy, but it was also the last time the old pieties held sway; the final occasion when the conventions were silently accepted by those concerned.

Aaron Blake of the Washington Post called Bernie Sanders the first openly agnostic candidate for the presidency.  But clearly the real agnostics are the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, who are openly breaking with the really important modern faith — the media-led church that has held mainstream politics together for so long.

That old time civic religion was not without its virtues. For all its artificiality, it led us safely through the perilous last years of the 20th century huddled safely ’round the glowing screen. You can still visit it in its pristine state when you visit some of the elderly, among people who have no use for the Internet except to pay their bills online, and who rely on broadcast and cable TV for everything else.

There it survives in full force, like a living museum where the past still lives. If you sit in the parlor, the TV programming comes insistently through the walls like it did in 1990: 24 hours of breaking news on global warming, expanding government, and feel-good stories about the miraculous powers of acceptance.

It’s a mix of alarmism and artificial hope, designed with artificial highs and lows; once so real and now so bizarre. Yet for all of its stridence, the old civic religion constructed a comforting mental world of known distances and where leaders stood at a reassuring distance from our own limitations, ready to answer; ready to help. Ready to save.

If you visit such survivals, then by the end of the coffee cake you may be tempted to stay in its folds instead of venturing out into a universe where no budgets are passed, no House speakers are elected, no borders are maintained, and no truth is left unvarnished. The world of drones and shadows and lies. To walk from a warm parlor into uncertainty is no pleasant task, yet perhaps that is the world as it is, and venture into it we must.  Freedom and personal responsibility were never comforting places. They were always perilous things.

The terrible thing about people like Cruz and Rubio is they make their appearance not as replacement demigods — as substitute Hillary Clintons or Barack Obamas — but as reminders that such magical figures don’t exist.  What we are left with are merely men like ourselves: flawed and uncertain, with none of the pat answers their rivals have always had, distinguished only by their willingness to ask the questions.

The cumulative breakdowns in the old ways remind us again that this generation is on its own, probably the first to fully emerge from the long afterglow of the World War II victory.

Our inheritance lasted a long time. But at last a new generation must make its way from first principles because the old methods have stopped working. Consequently, it will either be the new Greatest Generation or the gang that lost it all.

In any event, the challenge cannot be refused. Cruz and Rubio had to say it or someone else would. Maybe the hardest part of the whole situation is to realize this really is it. We are on our own. We’ve moved on past the comforting signposts of the the past into the unknown, but look at it this way: what choice have we got?

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