Actors can project their emotions, stirring our empathy, but it isn’t our pain they feel, it’s their own. The star shedding tears on the deck of the Titanic, in a concentration camp or the unemployment office isn’t feeling the pain of those people, he’s thinking about the time his dog died or how that nail keeps digging into his foot.
It’s not empathy that’s on stage, but the solipsistic ego that doesn’t offer empathy, but demands it. Billy did not feel the pain of his idiot questioner or anyone’s pain. He made us feel his pain, but mostly he made us feel his undiluted joy at running things and being the center of attention. That was why so many people loved him and still love him. He was the star of the raunchy comedy who kept making more and more sequels, and though the audience knew that it should despise him, it was glorying too much in his revels to be able to break free of that emotional identification.
Clinton made it inevitable that the perfect “I” president would appear to live his life in public, offering constant coverage of his life, his tastes, his family, his pets and his thoughts on every subject. He would not be a private man, he would be a public spectacle. He would be able to talk about himself, not only at debates, but all the time. He would always be an “I” and though he might screw up the country, the Sally Jesse Raphael audience would live through him, feel his pain, share his joys and cheer him on in the great collective noise of a celebrity and the fans who live for him.
The American presidency ended. The American celebritocracy began. The process that began with televised debates ended with government as entertainment. There was no more room for the ugly or for men and women with private emotions. A man who could not empathize with the national debt at a drop of a hat, who could not abandon the habits of a lifetime of thinking in practical terms, instead of emotional terms, was no longer a plausible candidate.
And so we have a towering national debt that keeps adding trillions to it and a great many feelings. We have a surplus of politicians who cannot stop spending money and cannot stop talking about how they feel about it. They could bring Sally Jesse Raphael or Phil Donahue out of retirement to host a show on, “Politicians Who Love Spending Money And Can’t Stop” that would end with everyone feeling better about their feelings. But it’s redundant because we already have that show. It’s called the national government and you can catch it on CSPAN. It’s not very exciting, but give it time and there will be a makeover.
October 15, 1992 changed the conversation from a politician’s ability to discuss what he would do about a problem, to talking about how it made him feel bad. And now we and our politicians feel bad about a variety of things. But they all blame everyone else and there’s no objective way to settle the debate because feelings aren’t objective, they’re subjective.
Voters are slowly dragging themselves out of Obama’s “I-Sphere” because of the practical necessities of survival, such as having a job, which is difficult to come by in an economy run at the whim of a boy-king who throws handfuls of money into the air and waits for them to turn into magic green jobs. And to do that they have to untangle themselves from their emotional entanglement with his image, his race and the vicarious life that they have lived through him. They have to realize that feeling things is not nearly as important as doing them.
But Obama’s defeat, if it comes, will not restore what was. Obama is a symptom of the problem, not the problem. And the problem is that we have stopped asking the hard questions and instead looked for soft reassurances. Instead of holding politicians accountable for their actions, we have held them accountable for our emotions. And that has led us into unmitigated disasters on numerous fronts.
With all of that it was no surprise that the first question in the Town Hall debate was an “I Feel” question directed at Romney or that Romney handled it glibly with “I Feel” material delivered in the soothing voice usually reserved by doctors for calming down upset patients. And that is the function of a qualified politician now, to speak softly and soothingly reassure everyone that nothing is wrong. There’s no reason to be upset. Yes the ship is sinking, but while it does, let’s stand on deck, listen to the orchestra play a song and talk, talk about our feelings.