The recent public controversies regarding Bill O’Reilly, Tomi Lahren, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and others have led many to question not only the specific individuals involved but also whether the entire political entertainment culture is harmful to political conservatism and the country’s discourse.
National Review writer David French describes this in a recent article as a “toxic culture of conservative celebrity, where the public elevated personalities more because of their pugnaciousness than anything else.” French criticizes political entertainers for putting wit and character above truth-seeking and balanced analysis.
While the sentiments of French and others are not necessarily wrong, as undoubtedly political commentators and entertainers have some duty to the public to act appropriately with their megaphones, he nonetheless paints a highly negative picture of political entertainers while ignoring the positive and necessary role they play in American civic life.
Political entertainers like Bill O’Reilly have been criticized over the years, and more recently commentators like Tomi Lahren the same, for being agenda-driven, loud, and not engaging in the long intellectual proofs that intellectual conservative discourse has built itself on.
However political entertainers bring political commentary and national politics to the American people in a way that no other medium is able to. The Heritage Foundation’s online lectures will never bring as many interested viewers as the 4-million a night Bill O’Reilly brought on his show, or the millions of viewers per Facebook video that Tomi Lahren did and recently began doing again.
On the other side of the aisle, political entertainers on the left are now the lifeblood of the liberalism in the United States, and we can see how liberalism has dramatically grown in its public outreach thanks to these personalities. Personalities like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, and countless others, make the dry and weary issues of politics interesting and fun for ordinary Americans who may otherwise have little interest and input. Few would argue they are journalists, balanced, or impartial, but that this is not their role.
The modern political entertainer fulfills a necessary void that has recently gone missing from American political life. In Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”, he describes how in recent years American communities have become less focused around community associations and mass gatherings, such as churches, ethnic, and recreational groups, and moved towards an individualized, or at most friend and family based life.
Mass political entertainment and consciousness is a necessary pillar of the American republic. The late 1800’s in the U.S. were a time of political parades, regular mass voter turnout in the high 70% to low 80% mark, and deep public participation in the debates and issues of the day. Throughout the 1900’s the American public remained healthily connected to their representatives and government on all levels.
Much of deep connection between government and the people was done through melding political and social life together. Political parades marched down city streets, political machines connected neighborhoods together, cafes brimmed with discussion, and community associations flourished with activity and membership. This public participation and input created accountability and appropriate representation from what otherwise might be an increasingly distant and oligarchical government.
With the increasing decline of American communities, so too has mass public participation and consciousness. However political commentators have filled this role by taking far-off national issues and bringing them to people’s homes on their computers, radios, and televisions. Furthermore, political entertainers do it in a way where people beyond those with an advanced degree are able to understand and respond to these issues.
Intellectual conservative discourse remains a necessary component of discourse on the right in our modern-day. However it is only one of many necessary voices, as otherwise Republicans will find that the population at-large has lost both interest and understanding in the issues of the day, to the detriment of conservatism and American democracy as a whole.
Democrats and the left continue to enjoy a vibrant and healthy political entertainment culture. This culture has succeeded in mobilizing and bringing consciousness to millions of Americans, especially Millennials, who might otherwise be apathetic and disinterested. Conservative should not be so quick to abandon such a powerful mobilizing tactic, and furthermore a modernized tradition as old as the American republic itself.
American republicanism was built on public accountability and participation. Political entertainers of both sides perform a necessary function in making that possible in our modern internet-based and increasingly disconnected American social fabric.