"There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted." -- Kevin Spacey as President Frank Underwood
As we're about to enter the biennial hunting season for the "sport" of national politics, I find myself reflecting on why Americans accept incivility, lies, blabbering talking heads on national television, and the like. Can it be that politics has become a rough spectator sport, akin to gladiators in ancient times and rugby and hockey in modern times? Or perhaps, modern American politics is more like a high-stakes poker game, played with nerve and finesse by skilled players wagering bets? Even worse, what if the uglier the politics get, at some primal subconscious level, we like it?
I believe that all of the above is true. At some primitive level, many Americans relish the conflict in the same way that some regional football rivalries bring out the best of team spirit but the worst of human nature. Ditto with large campaign donors -- are they truly contributing for "the cause" or for the "sport" of buying access and feeling important?
How else can you reconcile the recent USA Today civility survey? This poll shows that a large percentage of Americans favor political polarization and conflict because they believe it essential to the checks and balances system of American democracy. Yet other polls affirm that a majority of Americans decry and resent incivility and political polarization.
This cultural dissonance, our national bipolar disease, makes perfect sense if you look at the popularity of House of Cards and other hit TV shows in which the protagonist is evil. This is not yesterday's Happy Days or All in the Family, in which rough-at-the-edges characters like "The Fonze" or Archie Bunker struggled with moral dilemmas.
Today's biggest hit shows such as House of Cards, Blacklist, and the now concluded Breaking Bad have flawed characters who manipulate, kill and, in the end, get away with it and succeed. They're evil, and we're fascinated by them. At some level, we're drawn to evil!
There's another message, reinforced by recent stories about American sports and business: do anything to win.
In House of Cards, Frank Underwood, the House majority whip turned vice president, and in its new season, president of the United States, wins big-time through lies, manipulation, disloyalty and sometimes even death in the interest of advancing his career. He confuses his career aspirations with the greater good. In other words, what's good for Frank Underwood is good for America. He plays political egos and the politics of power and self-interest like an impresario, and we like him.
He declares, "Moments like this require someone who will act. Do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing." We applaud -- yes, someone is finally getting something done in Washington! Even President Obama admiringly weighed in: "I was looking at Kevin Spacey and thinking, this guy's getting a lot of stuff done."
I'm not immune to this admiration. I like House of Cards, but I don't know why.
In our continued fascination with evil, there's Walter White in Breaking Bad. White is a cash-strapped high school science teacher who collaborates with a drug-dealing former student, cooking up crystal meth to help his cancer treatments first and later to fatten his wallet. In an editorial, The Guardian said that, "We watch as decent men become monsters, even shrugging off a child's death as 'collateral.'"
America watches and is mesmerized. Are we glued to the moral challenges the show positions or to the pure, unadulterated high of watching evil on the small screen?
And then there's Blacklist's Raymond 'Red' Reddington, an ex-government agent, one of the FBI's most-wanted fugitives, who helps an FBI task force catch criminals. He is highly effective in his strategy and tactics, and the FBI, as a result, is able to foil crimes. But, often at the end of the show, he ends up killing, as well. Win at all costs -- we applaud.
Several years ago, I railed at a major Hollywood producer about Hollywood's glorification of violence. She told me that Hollywood is merely a mirror of America -- that violence sells because Americans like violence.
I questioned, which is the chicken and which is the egg? Do we get a rush out of violence because it satisfies some base human need or have we been programmed and manipulated by what we see, accepting this as normal and wanting more? Is part of human nature prone to violence and incivility, and do we need to safeguard against these flaws by what we choose to view?
Consider these facts. According to a Senate report, an average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age eighteen. Two-thirds of TV programming contains violence. A 15-year-long study by the University of Michigan demonstrated a strong link between TV watching and adult violence. A 17-year-long study at Michigan also showed that teenage boys who grew up watching more TV are also more prone to committing acts of violence as adults.
Getting back to House of Cards and real political theatre, are we reflecting what already is or predestining what will be? As we watch more evil, are we feeding a frenzy that we will ultimately regret as Hollywood becomes real life and real life becomes Hollywood?
Ultimately, the American people are the consumers of both. Will we consume the "red meat" of politics like ravenous dogs or will we seek and demand civility both in real life and on TV? As we are about to enter real political theatre once again, and as it continues through the 2016 Presidential election, the plot thickens and the stark reality of how we and our children will be affected hangs in the balance.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us