The "TV Event" As Bipartisanship, or, How the Super Bowl Helps Kill Health Care Reform

IN YOUR HOUSEIt was totally great that New Orleans got to celebrate last night. Now, are you ready for your Monday come-down? The Super Bowl–or more specifically, the way we watch it–is connected to the possibility that Democrats won’t pass health care reform this year. Or that the two Democratically-controlled chambers of Congress that have already passed some version of health care reform might not manage to send a unified bill to a Democratic president’s desk for his signature. The lessons, as always in America, are to be found in a reading of what happened on the teevee.

Think of it this way: the Super Bowl is the high-def broadcast embodiment of this political idea we call “bipartisanship.” It’s a “come together” moment in the culture, one when “real America” (which, to generalize, watches a lot of football) and “fake America” (which–again, speaking broadly–only tunes in for the big games) collude in the fiction that we are something resembling a coherent polity, all the members of which care to some appropriate degree about the other actors–even when we disagree. This is all perfectly false and has been for some time, in case you haven’t noticed.

Remember, a recent poll found that fully two-thirds of Republicans either believe whole-heartedly or are “not sure” whether the “high crimes” clause in the constitution has been triggered and thus whether a president they merely happen to disagree with ought properly to be impeached. One-third of those Republicans sampled were fully in favor of secession from the union. I’m supposed to feel good about watching a game in common with these people? As a putatively “American” activity? Pass.

I’m starting to hope they’ll make good on what I suspect is a cowardly inauthentic threat and just secede, already. After all, right now our TV bipartisanship is a lot like our political bipartisanship: it all takes place on the conservatives’ turf. It’s never a massive “come together” television event when the National Book Awards are announced. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why the prelude to yesterday’s TV bipartisanship was the president getting on TV to assure the “liberal” Katie Couric about how there would be a lot more political bipartisanship to come before Congress even thinks of reconciling the two health care bills that its two chambers already passed. You could argue that this is smart politics, perhaps–or that it is a cunning way of seeming to act bipartisan while only enabling the process of reconciliation between House and Senate bills that has devolved into a “murky chaos“–but only if you ignore the fact that excessive fealty to the optics of bipartisanship is what swallowed up the entirety of Obama’s first-year domestic agenda on behalf of a legislative priority whose odds, at present, look chancy at best. Sure, this strategy may yet bring results. But probably not fast enough, considering all the problems waiting patiently behind health care.

At any rate: if you like football and are really interested in the Super Bowl’s outcome, then you don’t need me to tell you to have watched it, no matter your politics. Enjoy the shit out of it! But if you only watch the Super Bowl because everyone else watches it and you feel like you ought to watch it, too, allow me to suggest that, next year, you give it a rest. If your interests have to do with anything other than sports or celebrities, at least know that the same courtesy of mass-interestedness will never be extended in your direction during peak moments of excitement related to whatever it is you care most about.

Meantime, there’s no need to inflate the numbers of Super Bowl watchers–and no urgency to make its ad time all the more lucrative for the proponents of cheap chauvinism to trade in on–unless you really want to be there. Personally, while I’m quite content to pay higher taxes in New York so that the rural dudes I grew up with can have some sort of subsidized health care available to them while they are increasingly out of work, I confess I’m somewhat weary of simultaneously having to listen to cultural products aimed at my male cohort proffer the casual suggestion that I simply must be a sissified queer for paying attention to a girl instead of that game where a bunch of dudes play grab-ass. Just saying.

Because of this, I’ll only ever watch football if I’m in the company of a friend whose excitement can have a cheering effect on me. And so it happens I didn’t watch the Super Bowl yesterday. Not because I’m more interested in “proving a point” than I am in having fun, but because even more than I don’t care about football, I don’t care about supporting the ludicrously out of date notion that this country hangs together in any manner save for geographically (and even in that sense, obviously not completely). And it’s not possible to pressure me into caring by suggesting that I should watch just so that I know what my fellow man is up to. I feel fully versed about “him,” thanks. If I come into work on Monday and someone alerts me to the fact that some misogyny was detected in the vicinity of our national sports culture over the weekend, I am not shocked. It’s times like these that we need an antonym for “breaking news.”

Bipartisanship doesn’t exist. Not politically in a de facto 60-vote Senate. And, culturally speaking, not in the world of TV, where anything remotely intelligent–even if it’s a drama about people playing football!–struggles for viewers. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to learn to take what he or she can get, and stop thinking that playing nice or taking an interest in the other side will bring anything like reciprocity.

My dad once told me about this episode of the TV show Dallas that he remembered watching a long time ago. I didn’t know anything about the show except that it was about money and power and my home state of Texas, but that was enough for me to understand the anecdote as presented, in which one male instructed another male that “Nobody gives you real power. Real power is something you take.” I’d take that clip, turn it into an ad, and show it to Congressional Democrats Clockwork Orange-style if I could afford to, but somehow I think they’d still manage to miss the point.



Seth Colter Walls writes for Newsweek.