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David Sirota
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Saturday 5 January 2013
Reality TV, of course, is this moment’s perfect metaphor; That schlocky format’s foundational oxymoron—it is “real” but not real—also defines contemporary politics.

The Truth Behind the Fiscal Cliff’s Reality TV Show

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During the halcyon 1990s, we labeled annual congressional temper tantrums for what they were: standard, if boring, budget impasses. Now, though, in a hilariously non-ironic flail for ratings, news outlets have taken Nigel Tufnel's famous line from "Spinal Tap" seriously, turning the volume up to 11 by portraying the latest standoff as a harrowing "fiscal cliff," replete with doomsday countdown clocks, gaudy NFL-quality graphics, and endless Twitter hashtags.

If anyone outside the Beltway was paying attention (a big "if"), they probably thought the title referred to an old episode of "Cheers" in which the goofy mailman does his taxes. After all, replaying reruns would have been more compelling content than this latest installment of "Real World: U.S. Capitol."

Reality TV, of course, is this moment's perfect metaphor. That schlocky format's foundational oxymoron - it is "real" but not real - also defines contemporary politics.

Think about it: we understand "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" as "real" only in the sense that the characters use their own names. But we also understand that most of Kim and Chloe's strife is manufactured. It's the same for Washington - in the fiscal cliff melodrama, we heard that Speaker John Boehner dropped the f-bomb on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and we saw Democratic lawmakers perform maudlin to-camera testimonies about their supposed loyalty to the middle class. Yet, those few watching at home almost certainly sensed that it was all a scripted production - one whose outcome was predetermined.

To appreciate how the kabuki theater works, consider three big outcomes of the fiscal cliff legislation that the attendant reality TV show never highlighted:

1. Bush defeats Clinton: President Clinton's tax rates delivered big budget surpluses and one of history's strongest rates of economic growth. By contrast, President Bush's cuts to those tax rates birthed massive deficits and the slowest rate of economic growth in modern history.

Yet, faced with the fiscal cliff's choice between Clinton and Bush tax rates, both parties agreed to ratify almost all of the latter.

For Republicans, this victory was summed up by Bush's former spokesman, Ari Fleischer, who said simply, "it's fantastic." For Democrats, their triumphant rhetoric about their one small win - restoring Clinton rates on income above $400,000 - obscures a humiliating truth. Essentially, the party that spent so much political capital to modestly raise taxes and restore fiscal sanity after the Reagan binge was bullied into undoing much of its own fiscal legacy.

2. Nobody in Washington cares about deficits: During December's "fiscal cliff" TV show, D.C.'s reality stars told us that they were focused on reducing the budget deficit. But, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the final bill will increase the budget deficit by $4 trillion.

3. Corporate welfare is sacrosanct: For all the effort to make wasteful spending the villain in the "fiscal cliff" TV show, Congress ultimately refused to touch that spending. Somehow, defense contractor largesse in the bloated Pentagon budget was off the table. Somehow, subsidies to corporate agribusiness were separated from the negotiations and then extended. Meanwhile, as the Roosevelt Institution's Matt Stoller documented, the final "fiscal cliff" bill included taxpayer handouts for everything from NASCAR racetracks, to Hollywood studios, to a new Goldman Sachs headquarters.

If you find these facts more depressing than the fantasies that dominated the public version of the "fiscal cliff" drama, then you appreciate why so many Americans prefer reality TV over genuine documentaries. A shrink-wrapped "reality" hyped for maximum titillation is, indeed, more pleasant to watch than actual reality. Congress and the political media know this, so they give viewers what they think we want.

The problem is that the real story gets lost in translation, leaving us at once totally disgusted, occasionally entertained and permanently fleeced ... just as Washington wants.

Copyright Creators.com


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ABOUT David Sirota

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado.

jackwenayscott's picture

This article hints at the

This article hints at the horrible "reality" of how the true condition of the American body politic. Take the recent elections, they were almost entirely decided by what people saw on a TV set! Who really benefitted from Citizens United? Well, the super-PACs simplified the circuit of money, directly from your $50 contribution (and Montsano's $50,000 contribution) into the coffers of the TV giants, conveniently leaving the politician out of the financial circuit! Most of the campaign money simply flows from the citizens into the gold bathtubs and ermine heroin needles of L.A. entertainment people, with politicians merely looking on, and think of the result, the Koch's and all those sincere Republicans who heartily laughed at global warming wasted their money! All down the tube as L.A. tipped the election to Obama, just as I said they would, based on their overiding hatred of the values and morals of a Mormon. On TV money buys time, and Big Television has limited time that so many are competing to get for their own little product, be that product an over-the-counter medication or a political view. Who decides who will get those precious advertising time-slots? The few hundred thousand people who populate the L.A. entertainment-news Empire, from the carefully groomed and trained network heads to the key grip, THEY control the horizontal, THEY control the verticle. I suggest you do as I do, stop watching their immoral cavort and begin to access the other forms of communication to get the message of equality and environmental sanity adopted! Once you're watching a TV, they've GOT YOU! Then you're putty in their hands, no matter how clever you think you are!

We the People need to get off

We the People need to get off the couch and tell these Bought Off Congressmen that we Will Not Take It Anymore. The Democrats Didn't take the Message Far Enough to the Left for these Far Right Republicans. These Tea-Party Republicans Need to be Taught a Lesson about Share & Share Alike. We need to demand that the Government get the Jobs that they Promised. To get these Jobs, the government needs Revenue. To get this Revenue, the government needs to Tax the Rich like FDR did in the 30's, in order to get us out of the Great DEpression. We are in a Great Recession now, that needs Drastic Changes, like the Tax Code of 1938. In 1938 we had 33 Tax Brackets in order to reach all levels of income. These brackets ranged from 4% for income up to $64K, all the way up to 79% for income over $79Million. This exactly what we need today, to conteract the runaway income inequality. Capitol Gains tax should be taxed as any other income. Why should someone say that their income is different than someone elses income. Income is Income.... God Bless the Middle Class and all those Fighting to get back into it. FDR had a lot of Good Ideas and Policies to put the country to work. It's about time someone with a voice started talking about rebuilding the infrastrure.

Of course this whole episode

Of course this whole episode was a "reality" show. The producers standing off stage wrote the conclusion. The actors are allowed to ad lib as long as they arrive at the scripted ending. It doesn't matter who plays the leading role; a Romney or Obama, Boehner or Reid. It makes no difference to the producers as long as the cast stays on message.

I've said words to this effect ad nauseaum. Especially to Democrats that insist that a vote for Obama is a vote for the lesser evil. It makes no difference who is in which particular seat of office, the outcome of legislation in a particular session is determined by those that hold the real power to govern. How can it not be so? Does anyone actually believe that the corporatocracy with it's vast wealth and influence is going to allow a bunch of people chosen from the masses to call the shots and tell them anything about anything. A Romney would be curtailed in a drive to the right ( so as not to arouse the sleeping masses until it's completely over) just as Obama is forced to stay on script. The real area of change is occuring at the state level where the corporatocracy can steer the population in the desired direction in small numbers at a time frame of their choosing.

To get the big picture, the worth of America, as represented by it's money supply and credit (bonds) is privately owned and or completely controlled. As owner, would you let a group of outsiders tell you how to run your business? Time to "get real".....

We all know that most of the

We all know that most of the political action seen by the public is just for show. However, FULLBLAD, as one who voted for the Lesser Evil, I wonder just what your recommendations would be. All you seem to do is look down your nose at those of us doing the best we can with the politicians we have. It's so easy, after all, to just sit on your hands and say "BAH!" to everything, but I see no practical suggestions from you for accomplishing anything. And you think yourself superior because you condemn everything.

I've spent my whole life trying to cope with circumstances as best I could, and I've been a progressive since my first vote, and have occasionally voted for third-party candidates at the local level. It's frustrating and often unrewarding, but I do think there's a difference between Romney-Ryan's agenda and that of Obama-Biden. The only time I ever felt any fervor for a particular cause or candidate was for the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, (whom I actively supported, with money and work) a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. As a veteran of military service myself, I was appalled at the waste and carnage Vietnam entailed, and was grateful I was no longer a candidate for the draft.

But even McCarthy didn't make me believe he was a saint or savior. I have never had that kind of blind zeal for any political candidate. Yet I notice how you just sneer at progressives like myself and apparently counsel us to do nothing but sit on the sidelines like yourself and act too superior to actually vote, implying that those of us who do are some kind of mental or moral defectives.

Yes, you've preached your passive cynicism "ad nauseam," but what do you hope to accomplish? I'm pissed off enough with conditions in this, my native country, that if I was younger I'm sure I would emigrate to Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

Why don't you try to be more constructive instead of up-nosing those of us who have been politically involved all our lives? Yes, maybe it was all for nothing, but I'm still glad I did something. What is your reward?

Our government, beginning

Our government, beginning with the president and speaker, are made up mostly of hustlers and BS artist. This is mainly because the corporate media like MSNBC, FOX, CNN, CSPAN, PBS, and most of the media give the American people a steady diet of scripted biased ideology, government controlled, zionist propaganda, and information that fills your head with garbage instead of making you think.

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