By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
I’m not the good guy. Neither are you. And neither are Mark Pryor nor Tom Cotton.
I bring that up because we’re in the middle of a campaign season where television ads, and many news providers, treat what should be a statewide job interview instead like a TV show.
And boy, there are a lot of those ads. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the candidates, the parties and independent groups had broadcast 40,576 of them in Arkansas during the 2014 campaign in the Senate race alone as of Sept. 22.
From the time we are born, Americans are fed a steady diet of fiction. Movies, books, TV shows – including sitcoms – often feature three elements: a protagonist who is the hero (along with sidekicks and love interests), an antagonist who is the villain, and extras.
Except in rare cases, whoever spends the most time on camera is the hero, even if the antagonist is more worthy of admiration. For example, in “Rocky,” Rocky Balboa may have had a heart of gold, but he had been a lifetime underachiever and a loan shark’s debt collector, while Apollo Creed was an undefeated champion, smart businessman, and devoted husband and father. We cheer for Rocky.
In our lives, we’re the protagonist, so we believe we’re the hero, which means there must be villains somewhere. Our flaws are merely the personal challenges all heroes must overcome, while the villains never change and have only evil intentions. That’s how a story works.
This is not a healthy thing for any of us. It leads to pride and narrow-mindedness and a lack of grace toward others. It’s particularly problematic in politics. There are many reasons why today’s Congress is dysfunctional, but could one be that its members, raised on television like the rest of us, have bought into the fiction?
For the past year-and-a-half, we’ve watched Cotton and Pryor try to destroy each other on television. Other races with less money at their disposal are behaving in a similar fashion, especially now that the election is nearing. The gloves have really come off in the 2nd Congressional District race between French Hill and Patrick Henry Hays.
I’ve been around enough of these campaigns to know that few of the candidates believe they are at fault. Both sides believe their opponent started it all by lying and slinging mud, so everything they do now is justifiable. In the battle between good and evil, the stakes are too high to worry about fair play.
The next time you’re tempted to put your faith in a politician, or even, for 700 words, a columnist, google “Voyager” and “Pale Blue Dot.” You’ll see a photo of Earth taken by Voyager I from four billion miles away. The planet is tiny. On that little blue dot are billions of smaller dots, all of us running around thinking we are the center of the universe – or at least, the hero of the story.
The truth is, we’re all extras. Every last one of us.
It’s not that either Cotton or Pryor are villains. In fact, they’re both good people – good extras. But when 535 extras journey to Congress, all believing they’re the hero and all looking for dragons to slay, well, then you get the train wreck that Washington has become.
There’s a reason the Constitution’s defining principle is a limitation of power. Our government is designed to prevent the rise of even the most benevolent of dictators for fear of where that could lead.
Under the Constitution, compromise and cooperation are required to accomplish even basic governance, despite the fact that it’s bad TV. For us to think constitutionally requires us to overcome a lifetime of fictional programming, where you don’t compromise or cooperate with the villain. You defeat him, and then you get the girl.
But that’s TV, not real life. I’m not sure if today’s candidates always know the difference. I’m not sure if we voters do, either.