In the classic Hollywood musical “Blue Skies” Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire sing a song called “A Couple of Song and Dance Men.” The two croon, “For miles around the women and children pass out cold when my voice hits the air and my feet hit the ground.”
This could be the refrain of our national politics these days. We have a lot of song and dance men, and a few women, too.
In political science we talk about the “permanent campaign.” This is the near constant attempt by politicians alike to stir up controversy, to give the feeling of crisis wherein the politicians must swoop in and save the day.
Look at the fundraising letters. Those “big government liberals” are in the process of destroying the Constitution. The “extremist conservatives” are declaring “war on women.” In Congress our legislators preen in front of cameras and give campaign speeches instead of policy speeches. It’s all song and dance.
Campaign finance rules force candidates on their own to raise the millions needed to run for big time offices. Because of tight restrictions on how candidates can raise money, they work hard raising the money. In the words of the Crosby and Astaire song, they have to sing for their supper and dance for their meals. That’s what raises the dough.
The same is true regarding the industry surrounding national politics. It is often said that Washington, D.C., is a company town. There are myriads of interest groups, lobbyists and media folk who must make sure that the company prospers as their livelihood depends on it.
The interest groups do the same as the politicians, whipping up a frenzy from their membership by stoking fear that disaster is just around the corner unless you send that $25 check. The lobbyists enrich themselves by offering protection to their clients from a government big enough to give the client anything, but also powerful enough to take everything away.
The media must put on a show to draw in viewers. Recently, while Syria burns, war rages in Mali, our economy remains in stagnation, and the debt continues to balloon, the ABC Sunday show had as a guest former basketball player and overall loony Dennis Rodman to talk about his recent trip to North Korea. This is the act of an entertainment division, not news. Meanwhile cable news’ prime time lineup is made up mostly of demagogues trying to drive up their ratings by stoking anger and resentment.
Martin Fletcher, for decades NBC’s Middle East correspondent, recently said in a radio interview that network staff dedicated to the Middle East for each network has gone from the high teens to just one or two. Fletcher noted that while the networks refuse to fund journalism, they spend millions to hire pretty faces like NBC’s Brian Williams to sit in a studio and read the news. Quality song and dance men don’t come cheap.
Maybe the recent filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul regarding drone warfare is a sign of a new seriousness. Paul’s thirteen hour discourse on law and constitutionalism was extraordinarily erudite for Washington. Or maybe Paul is simply a very good song and dance man.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. The views he expresses are his own and not those of the university.