U.S. politics is global pop culture

Growing up in Singapore in the 60s/70s, we were cautioned against getting involved in politics or even be seen talking about politicians in public. While – like most folks around the world with access to radios, cinemas and TVs – we were besotted with U.S. pop culture, the same cannot be said about U.S. politics.

Sure, we got caught up in the big news events especially involving the various U.S. Presidents e.g. the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, the Monica Lewinsky incident and Clinton’s impeachment, the two Iraq wars started by Bush Sr and Jr and of course, Obama’s historic election.

Trump’s reality show

However, ever since the freak election result of 2016, when outsider Donald Trump defeated firm favourite Hillary Clinton, U.S. politics has turned into a reality show encompassing the genres of horror, true crime and black comedy! Trump’s penchant to break all norms regarding presidential behaviour has resulted in a 24/7 focus on his antics.

Not only that, but several late night hosts (most notably, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyer) have built entirely new careers purely based on their Trump commentary. Also, Trump’s antics has actually made fictional political drama look tame by contrast. How could House of Cards keep up when Trump’s presidency was worse than Frank Underwood?

Divide and conquer

The rise of Fox News and right wing radio show hosts like Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh has served to drive a wedge between left and right, a division encouraged by the Republican party. The left is not sacrosanct with CNN and MSNBC aligning themselves firmly against Trump and earning his “Fake News” riposte.

This has turned U.S. politics into a spectator sport, where there is no longer any objectivity or neutrality, and you are either on one side or the other. The politicians and the media have benefited from this culture war, with truth being the main casualties.

Everybody’s got an opinion

Added to this explosive mix, the internet and especially social media, which serve to amplify the echo chamber of confirmation bias. Everybody has an online political opinion and it is always partisan. This state of play has aided bad actors in spreading misinformation with Facebook and Twitter complicit in allowing falsehoods to be shared liberally.

The internet’s global reach has turned what used to be domestic issues into worldwide affairs. One personal experience was finishing a lecture one day in late 2016 and finding my 18 year old Singaporean students looking glum. “Trump just won” came the rationale. Pop cultural impact indeed.

For better or for worse?

Will things change if Trump loses in November? Or is this the new normal? I personally subscribe to the latter. The horses have bolted and it is really too late to close the barn doors. Like it or not. Especially when the politicians and the media have no interest in turning back the clock.

That said, this platform may also be ‘exploited’ by media-savvy superstar progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues. Social media is also able to energise protest and dissent, like Black Lives Matters, where videos of police brutality go viral.

The main thing for us is to remember to exercise critical thinking in this particular pop culture genre. Entertainment with real-life consequence is our reality now. How we respond will determine what the future of politics will look like.

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