Easy Chair — From the May 2013 issue

Power Rangers

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What, then, is the Washingtonian, this smug and satisfied man? Behold him as he ambles toward you on the sidewalks of Capitol Hill, phone clamped to his ear, talking loudly so that all might know his significance. Note well his blue suit, blue tie, the lapel pin announcing his patriotism or his lofty elected position or his allegiance to one trade association or another. What manner of man is he?

The makers of our TV shows think they know. In 1999, they gave us The West Wing, a beloved program about a culture-warring president and his gang of jaded aides who, though they harbor no illusions, try to do what is right for the country. The show was a fantasy of what liberals hoped the powerful were like — as Bill Clinton reportedly said in 2000, it was “renewing people’s faith in public service.”

Today TV knows something else about Washington. The trust of the American people in their leaders is now at a record low. In truth, it has been in the dumps for decades; it collapsed during the Vietnam War, and, despite fluctuations over the years, has never really recovered. Disgust hit a new high after the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011, when fully 86 percent of Americans told pollsters they felt “angry” or “frustrated” about the federal government — the worst result on record. And this is no doubt what accounts for the caustic new crop of Beltway soap operas, seemingly designed to dynamite faith in Washington rather than renew it.

[1] Netflix, which produced one of the shows discussed below, actually chose its director and star by analyzing user data. “Through our algorithms,” declared one Netflix executive, “we can determine who might be interested in Kevin Spacey or political drama.”

Political cynicism as a form of entertainment is nothing new, of course. And viewers have long been able to choose from an extensive selection. There’s Sixties-style suspicion of the Pentagon, for example, or Seventies-style suspicion of busing and the EPA. But what distinguishes the current offerings is that they invite you to scoff for no reason at all. This new cynicism is largely unrelated to American politics — indeed, much of it is imported wholesale from other countries. It seems a thing not of populist rage but of focus groups and algorithms, and its distrust of government is almost completely abstract.[1]

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