Banana Republicans: Pumping Irony

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Pumping Irony is the title of chapter four of the 2004 book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State (ISBN 1585423424).


For Jay Leno, it was a big night, scoring the highest Nielsen rating that The Tonight Show had seen for a Wednesday in more than four years. The big guest was movie muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was coming on the show to announce whether he would run as Republican candidate in California's recall election against Democratic Governor Gray Davis.

Aside from the ambition of winning California in the presidential race, the Republican Party stood to benefit in other ways by electing Schwarzenegger, such as an increase in Republican voter registration with the potential to influence future elections. It also forces Democratic presidential candidates to spend more time and money in the state in 2004.

While vocal in their views, Democratic-leaning actors have rarely sought political office and have almost never held it, preferring to advance their views through activism, lobbying and the arts. By contrast, acting has been a stepping-stone to political careers for numerous Republicans.

There are several reasons for this disparity. One is that the Republican Party has actively recruited and supported candidates from the entertainment world. Another is that Republicans often run as "antigovernment" or "nonpolitician" candidates, so that an actor's lack of political experience can actually be an advantage for his campaign. And Republicans have shown greater mastery of the rules of postmodern politics, in which style is as important as substance and issues are less important than personality. Republican candidates understand these unwritten rules because they and their campaign consultants, some of whom actually started in the entertainment industry, played a big part in inventing them.

By its nature, television is expensive to produce and broadcast (although that may be changing, thanks to the Internet and other technological advances). It therefore lends itself to control by the people who can afford to pay for the considerable costs of production. It is also a highly emotional medium. Unlike print, which requires that the audience make a conscious effort, television is often absorbed unconsciously, as pure images and background in our information environment.

Of course, Republicans are not the only political players who have adapted to the political environment created by television. In the 1960s, Abbie Hoffman declared that the yippies were created "to manipulate the media." In fact, they tried to be the media. Citizen groups ranging from Greenpeace to Mothers Against Drunk Driving to Pro-Life America have all learned the impact of sound bites and celebrity endorsements. Among Democratic Party politicians, the most skilled practitioner of this art has undoubtedly been Bill Clinton. But yippies and other activists have never really succeeded at "being the media." At most, they have managed to occasionally use the media opportunistically. To "be" the media requires ownership or some other way of exerting actual power, and even Democrats, who are certainly more powerful than the yippies ever were, have found that they are often helpless to control the way their image is represented.

Observers agree that the 2004 elections are likely to be a defining moment for the future of the United States. After four years of nearly uncontested power, the Republican Party under the leadership of President George W. Bush hopes to consolidate its newly-won control over every branch of the U.S. government - the presidency, both houses of congress, and the judiciary. If it succeeds, its supporters pledge to continue an aggressive foreign policy that has already generated unprecedented hostility toward the United States throughout much of the rest of the world. At home, the Republicans can be expected to continue their planned rollbacks of environmental protection and labor rights, even as their tax breaks to the wealthy have created unprecedented budget deficits that economists fear will further undermine the country's unsteady economy.

On most of these matters, significant policy differences separate the Bush administration from its Democratic challengers. Moreover, opinion polls showed that the public's policy preferences align more closely on most issues with the Democrats than with Republicans. Paradoxically, however, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has had a hard time bringing his issues to the forefront of discussion, let alone achieving presidential stature in the eyes of the public.

Discussion questions

  • What role for the media did the campaign team for Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign for California's Governorship consider best suited their strategy? Why?
  • What effect does the dominance of television as a news medium have on the way political campaigns are conducted?
  • Is everyone equally able to get their views across in the media? Or are some views and groups marginalised?