In election’s wake, time to reunite America

For America in the 21st century — with all the connectivity and open exchange that it implies — elections are a spectacle. The model by which the people vote for the highest office in the country is not much different from the model by which reality television shows operate.

There is the same attendant drama, hyperbolic judgments and positions and attitude of general hysteria surrounding the election as there is involving American Idol. The result is different and certainly more important, but underlying both is the same quintessentially American preference for the spectacular.

This election did not disappoint — every conceivable media outlet was inundated with coverage or speculation. Intrade, an online bookie for non-sports bets, recently garnered a fair amount of attention in the media because what it said about the election, and how it said it, was pretty novel.

As of yesterday, Intrade indicated that the odds of President Barack Obama winning the election were roughly 70 percent. By facilitating the easy trading of non-sports futures, Intrade inevitably gathers very concrete data about the bets of users so confident in their selection they are willing to stake actual money on it.

Intrade predicted Obama the likely winner, and of course, he was ultimately the victor. Blame former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney’s bizarre and lengthy stretch of gaffes and his campaign’s embarrassing reactions to them.

Most notably, Mitt Romney’s flippant and asinine rhetoric speeches to his $50,000-a-plate supporters in Boca Raton, Fla., went viral. This is an age in which any legitimate, heavyweight contender for president must expect that every moment in front of any group can find its way immediately online. That just has to be the mentality. There can’t be such a thing as a private speech to loyal insiders who will keep it all in-house anymore. We’re past that as a society and it’s just the cost of doing business politically.

But Romney wasn’t only arrogant and thoughtless — that isn’t really even so strange or hard to stomach. We elected former President Richard Nixon, and he was the absolute pinnacle of rampant American presidential narcissism. For Romney, it goes deeper.

When offered some cookies by a woman during his Pittsburgh campaign, filmed by MSNBC, Romney turned her down with a look of mild disgust. He gave the woman who offered him the cookies a sharp look and told her they didn’t look homemade, they looked store-bought, and then waved his hand dismissively as he made comments about not eating something from a “7-Eleven gas bakery or whatever.”

The cookies were from local Pittsburgh Bethel Bakery, a fixture in the community and widely beloved. That can’t happen — it’s so laughable and contrived that it would be hard to believe in fiction, yet it is a plain and unadorned truth of this past election.

I get the same uncomfortable feeling watching Romney wave off baked goods that I do when I am unfortunate enough to watch a reality show. The gleeful and unabashedly partisan coverage of all Romney’s blunders was so strikingly similar to the catty articles on TMZ that I draw no real distinction between the two.

I don’t think the way we treat the election — and each other as the election ramps up — is new or unique to our epoch. There is really nothing new under the sun. Human nature is a constant.

What is new is the ability we have to reach out to one another through a virtual infinitude of media and connect. Connecting is great because it bands people together for common good, but the yin to that yang is that it enables people to more adeptly and totally cloister themselves. With the vast amounts of data any average person can access now comes also the ability and necessity to filter that information.

Consequently, as some of us draw together in one sense, all of us are inevitably drawing apart as well. Battle lines are drawn and heated debates have sprung up everywhere. It would be great to have true discourse arise that frequently, but these fruitless, self-righteous snits that actually occur are hardly ever legitimate, back-and-forth discussions.

There must inevitably be winners and losers. That is the real drama and it’s why audiences tune in to prime-time television, whether it be a literal song and dance, or a more figuratively the dog and pony show of the modern political process and all the media coverage. The celebration by the Obama campaign in its victory should be quiet, grateful and short. We, as a country, need to move beyond the gaps we’ve so effectively erected between ourselves and engage with each other meaningfully and cooperatively, or suffer the displeasing consequences reality television-level discourse offers.

Kevin Cook is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected].

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