by Ben Dolnick
One and only one episode of “ALF” survives in my memory: the full moon is coming and ALF, knowing that he’s about to transform into a monster, asks to be locked in a cage in the kitchen. He’s going to beg to get out, he warns the Tanners, he’ll weep and shout and make extravagant promises, but they must ignore him no matter what.
In this, the last stretch of days before the 2012 presidential campaign gets underway (Newt Gingrich is apparently almost ready to announce the results of his explorations into the question of forming an exploratory committee), I find myself feeling the need to haul out the old kitchen-cage. I’m not in danger of transforming into a cat-eating monster, but rather a Politico-reading, blog-commenting, Sunday-show-watching lunatic. Stop me before I care again.
In the run-up to the elections of both 2004 and 2008, I was one of those people who woke up in the middle of the night to check primary data. I regularly had my day ruined/made by polls of states I’d never set foot in. I wrote checks and impassioned mass-emails. I could (and worse, did) explain the intricacies of the Texas two-step primary/caucus. I have no idea why or how political campaigns became my drug of choice, but now, in this brief window of daylight, I dread the coming darkness.
There is, I think, a small but sturdy subset of political junkies (how terribly apt that word seems!) who will know whereof I speak. We have jobs that enable/demand near-constant proximity to computers. We have over-active opinion-producing glands. We take great and idiotic pleasure in knowing things first. We go on months-long news binges followed by days (OK, hours) of sobriety.
Political obsession is thus easy to fall into and hard to climb out of, in large part because following politics doesn’t feel, in quite the way that following sports or celebrity divorces does, like an obvious vice. Political informed-ness, after all, is a civic good. The stakes really are massive. The liars really are lying. Many of the things that a politically obsessed, internet-attached person finds himself doing are easy to see as a kind of voluntary homework: what could possibly be the harm in watching this panel discussion on C-SPAN? Isn’t learning the history of cap-and-trade at least as important as whatever else I’d be doing?
But here, I think, is when the politically obsessed mind pulls off its great trick. Because yes, understanding climate change: definitely important. The influence of money on politics: pernicious. Civil liberties and financial regulation and education reform: important, important, important. But the mind — or anyway my mind — isn’t really in it for these bits of nutrition. The moment it understands the necessity of the individual health care mandate, the obsessed mind sets out like a villager with a torch. Who dares fail to appreciate this argument I learned fifteen minutes ago? If you don’t knock it off I’m going to leave a five-hundred word comment about it! Ooh, wait, what’s that? Joe Lieberman made a funny face on “Hardball”? And someone made it into an Auto-tuned web-video?!?
Pretty soon a couple of things happen:
First, your mind begins to become about as habitable as a pinball machine. Morning newspaper stories lead seamlessly to midday Huffington Post talk-show clips which lead to evening panel discussions which must of course be lampooned on “The Daily Show” and “Colbert.” Your brain is twitching with informed-ness; you dreams are full of indignation and Breaking News Alerts.
And second — and this I think is harder to accept — your level of political understanding actually decreases. Are you familiar with the Laffer curve? In the 1970s, a man named Arthur Laffer apparently scribbled a simple graph on the back of a napkin showing that tax rates, increased past a certain point, actually decrease government revenue. I can work myself into a lather arguing about why this curve has no bearing on our present economic situation, but I find myself arguing here for the existence of a different kind of Laffer Curve, one to do not with taxes but with political informed-ness. And we, who have opinions about the reliability of various polling outfits, who believe it’s perfectly reasonable to watch C-SPAN in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, are well past its apex. A nine-year-old on the street, his brain free of conflicting data and nervous-making on-the-ground reports, may well have a clearer sense of where the presidential race stands at any given moment than a twenty-something newshound tapping away at his iPhone.
So, as the campaign season gets set to begin, with what everyone assures us will be unprecedented types and quantities of coverage, I hereby remind myself of a few basic certainties.
There will be scandals involving campaign aides; there will be brief, early periods of candidates’ lives dusted off and taken to be revelatory; there will be polls released on weekend nights, followed by ambiguous Nate Silver dissections; there will be supporters saying moronic and/or incendiary things on afternoon cable shows; there will be recklessly dishonest commercials; there will be breathlessly awaited speeches, carried live; there will be offense taken; there will be facts checked; there will be financial improprieties; there will be pseudo-suspenseful endorsements; there will be Twitter self-immolations; there will be debates and debates and debates.
And all of it will matter unfathomably less than the ALF within me will insist.
So yes, the moon is going to be full before we know it, and unfortunately most of us have no choice but to be both ALF and the Tanners. Already I can feel myself probing for weak spots in the cage. I can hear Harold Ford getting ready to deliver some infuriatingly vapid commentary on MSNBC. But I’m going to try this time, seriously. I’m going to set up camp at forest-seeing altitude. I’m going to read some books in the time I’d otherwise spend watching Politico’s Candidate-Implanted Live-Cams. If you see me in a comment section, don’t feed me, please, no matter what I say.