Lindsey Graham, meet Neil Postman.
There were no tweets, no GIFs, no “likes,” nothing going viral other than disease in 1986, when Postman wrote the prescient book Amusing Ourselves to Death. But Postman’s insights have only intensified 30 years later, and they partly explain why Sen. Graham, R-S.C., dropped out of the presidential race last week.
Postman saw early on how television was changing America’s public discourse. TV’s entertainment imperative was seeping beyond sitcoms and into every facet of American life. To Postman’s eye, the infection of TV’s inherently superficial nature into public life was allowing the spectacle of one’s delivery to overtake the substance of the message.
The result? The fulfillment of Aldous Huxley’s fears in Brave New World: As Huxley saw it, Postman said, “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
If television was adored and undid capacities to think, it was child’s play compared with what smart phones and the Internet have done. Entertainment is king, and substantive ideas get drowned out by the loudest voices and the latest insult. New technologies are eating away at our attention spans.
And so Lindsey Graham, probably the Republican candidate among 17 with the most knowledge and experience in foreign affairs, never registers on the public’s radar. His ideas about fighting terrorism and America’s role in the world — while too hawkish for many — are drowned out by Donald Trump’s offensive but entertaining barbs.
In fact, the only time Graham got much attention in this presidential campaign was when Trump gave out his cell phone number, and Graham responded with a video in which he destroys his phone.
Now that’s entertainment!
The point is not that Graham, who has served in the U.S. House or Senate since 1995, was a far superior candidate.
But he was an experienced one with substantive ideas on the toughest issues facing our nation. Unfortunately for him, that’s not how you get noticed these days.
Another central element sunk Graham. While he was one of the toughest-talking candidates on the Islamic State and foreign policy, he was open to bipartisan solutions to complicated issues such as immigration. That doomed him in today’s Republican Party, where he was regarded as insufficiently loyal to the hard right, dismissed as a RINO — a Republican In Name Only.
After losing two straight presidential elections to Barack Obama, Republicans conducted a post-mortem analysis of what went wrong.
It called for candidates who talk to a broader electorate than the Rush Limbaugh acolytes, specifically saying Republicans needed to embrace comprehensive immigration reform and be less obsessed with social issues.
Graham fit that bill. But anti-establishment Republicans have only tightened their grip on the party since that post-mortem, and with Donald Trump in the lead there’s no room for a serious-minded centrist like Graham.
It seems Republicans, at least, are amusing themselves to death.
Taylor Batten is the editorial page editor for The Charlotte Observer.
The columns of Leonard Pitts Jr. and Carl Hiaasen will return in January.