P.T. Barnum, flapdoodle merchant and bunkum plugger par excellence, got filthy rich by embracing the premise that the vast majority of Americans are chumps. Stitch a monkey’s head to a fish tail and say it’s a mermaid and they’ll believe it (and pay to see it). Ask for a nickel to see the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington and credulous hands will dip into pockets. There’s no real evidence that Barnum actually said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but, boy, he sure put that hypothesis to the test.
Barnum is, of course, best known as a showman and entertainer, a sort of nineteenth-century mashup of Donald Trump, Robert Ripley and the Kardashian family. What’s less known about him is that he was also a politician. He served several terms in the Connecticut legislature, was elected mayor of Bridgeport, and was a serious candidate for the United States House of Representatives (he lost in a tough race to his cousin, William Henry Barnum).
In the political arena Barnum was a lot more serious than the carnival huckster caricature he left to history. He was a vocal advocate of progressive causes (notably equality of African Americans), a big wheel in the temperance movement, and helped found Bridgeport’s hospital. It’s a fair bet, though, that Barnum’s take on voters wasn’t too far removed from his assessment of the gulls he hornswoggled with tabloid sensationalism and sideshow hoaxes. Indeed, he basically said as much, writing with more than a bit of a wink that, “need I explain to my own beloved countrymen that there is humbug in politics?”
While Barnum was far from the first to point out that that politics involves a heavy ration of babble and balderdash, he probably understood better than most that Americans are not policy wonks. Not even close. They respond less to ten point plans than a bit of glam and glitter, they like to see government magnificoes dusted with a bit of star power. Nobody likes a politician, but we love our celebrities. As a group we are quick to conflate fame with accomplishment, to assign to VIPs on the other side of the velvet rope the power to make our economy cabin lives better.
Indeed, there is a very long list of TMZ tribunes the electorate has put into office. And after all, why not? Looking good on camera or possessing a preternatural ability to fling around an inflated leather bladder surely is qualification enough for office? Barnum, of all people, would get that we’ve elected governors because they’re famous wrestlers (Jesse Ventura) or body builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger), people to Congress because they were TV stars, singers or comedians (e.g. Fred “Gopher from Love Boat” Grandy, Ben “Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard” Jones, Sonny “I got you babe” Bono, Al Franken). We elected a movie star to the presidency in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan). In the 1990s voters in Tennessee made silver screen make-believe a reality by voting Fred Thompson–an actor known for playing politicians–into the United States Senate. Big light names from sports have also traded stardom for a political career, including luminaries from the big three of football (Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne), basketball (Bill Bradley), and baseball (Jim Bunning).
Given this, it’s hard to be surprised over serious speculation that the next presidential election might come down to a contest between an incumbent best known for being a combative staple of reality TV and a famous talk show host. A duo so famous pretty much all Americans know them just by the first names–Donald and Oprah. And what better place for Oprah to float a presidential campaign trial balloon than at a celebrity awards show. Winfrey’s speech at last week’s Golden Globes kicked off an enthusiasm for a White House run that hit “yes we can!” levels in some Democratic circles.
If this is where politics is headed–and let’s face it, we’ve been shuffling down this road for a while– maybe we should go the whole hog and start appointing people to run the government from the same talent pool. What about Johnny Galecki as secretary of education, he plays an academic on TV (Prof. Leonard Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory). Kevin Costner for secretary of agriculture, he played a farmer in Field of Dreams. Maybe Tom Hanks or Tom Brady to run the Defense Department (Hanks was a great soldier in Saving Private Ryan and Brady is a pretty good field general). Make Whoopi Goldberg attorney general–given her stands on The View, she seems pretty into justice.
This all makes about as much sense as picking our presidents from the ranks of the red carpet and Entertainment Tonight set. If we’ve lost our faith in expertise, after all, why not put our faith in people who are not experts, but play experts for our amusement? The big argument against doing this sort of thing, of course, is that it’s wackadoodle crazy. It’s like choosing a surgeon for your cardiac procedure from the cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Or maybe like choosing a president because he stands in the public arena like Maximus from Gladiator and smugly says, “are you not entertained!”
Which is to say, it’s not crazy at all from preferences historically and currently expressed by the American voter. Doesn’t matter how serious the stakes, we want to be entertained, not be responsible, and certainly not responsibly led. To achieve that we’re perfectly willing to believe political plot lines and promises that make no sense outside a scriptwriter’s fevered dreams or Jerry Springer’s studio. We are, in short, pretty much what PT Barnum thought we were. Suckers.