Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Dismay and outrage greeted the news last week that Robert James Ritchie, the artist commonly known as Kid Rock, was contemplating a run for the United States Senate. The delicate souls at the New Yorker referred to "a terrifying new normal" in which another ridiculously unqualified celebrity ruled by baseless egotism, hysterical self-promotion and incoherent provocation might enter public life.
Is this a just a stunt? Does Mr. Ritchie believe any of what he says, a bizarre mash-up of debauchery and "God, Guns and Trump" finger-wagging? Is he more than the serial plagiarist and cultural magpie of his musical persona? It doesn't really matter, and trying to parse the cultural contradictions of this particular late-capitalist dolt can only produce madness.
No, the significance of Mr. Ritchie's proposed entry into electoral politics is that it is entirely predictable. Donald Trump is not the enabler here; we are. His D.C. ambitions are only the most recent example of a systematic erasure of any distinction between fame and politics.
What, after all, is democracy? We can fetishize our exercise of the vote and imagine sober, hard deliberations between elected representatives hammering out effective policies, but the daily reality of democracy for most of us is watching television, bleating on social media and (occasionally) reading newspapers. This is public discourse in our age.
As we know, the current U.S. President senses this and so has made Twitter his personal wacky domain. The "realDonaldTrump" handle he favours is revealing. The "real" acknowledges, unwittingly, that this is all entirely unreal, a simulacrum of accountability, representation and legitimacy.
Once again, though, Mr. Trump is symptom rather than disease. In his landmark 1985 critical study of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the late media scholar Neil Postman made a crucial point. Television does not distinguish between content; everything from sitcoms to serious news has exactly the same psychological weight, the same relationship to the viewer. Twitter's 140-character threshold just extends this flat logic.
The Situationist philosopher Guy Debord made the same point much earlier and with much fancier theoretical scaffolding in his 1967 book (later also a film) The Society of the Spectacle. In the world of visual consumption, everything and anything is suborned to the imperatives of capital. This obviously includes "official" democratic politics. Elected leaders don't employ bread and circuses to distract an otherwise suspicious populace; they are the bread and circuses.
Now we're all pulling the wool over our own eyes, especially those of us allegedly in charge. There's deception and cynicism, sure, and the spiralling rings of evasion typical of the current Washington regime. There's also the long-noted intersection of corporate interest and regulatory rollover, otherwise known as capito-democracy. But these do not conceal a large-scale perfidious project, a grand power scheme. There is no such master plan, just the endlessly inept, self-aggrandizing servants of the incumbency and their rentier accomplices.
Mr. Postman was an optimist. He thought education would make citizens more critical consumers of media. Mr. Debord and his associates, for their part, advised a politics of sly resistance, drifting through the city and its spectacular landscape in continuous acts of evasion.
Mr. Ritchie may be the first right-wing Situationist. He realizes that running for office is less important than announcing that you are going to, that policy is redundant next to image and that there is no such thing as expertise. We can now look forward to the brilliant parliamentary future of Justin Bieber ("never say never prorogue") and Carly Rae Jepson ("page me maybe"), the sign-of-the-times prime ministership of Harry Styles, and a U.S. cabinet composed of Beyoncé (education), Jay-Z (state), Gwyneth Paltrow (health, obviously), plus various Kardashian sisters, cousins, entourages, groupies and hangers-on.
Depending on your point of view, this is either the endgame of official democracy or the rational execution of its basic premise. The basic qualification for being an elected representative is, after all, simply that you are a fellow citizen. Laments for special ability and competence in our elected leaders are not only outdated, they're fundamentally anti-democratic, vestiges of an aristocratic age. Meanwhile, the demos is dangerously unhinged, and always has been.
As Senate Majority Leader Rock likes to say, "Holler if you is, shut up if you ain't." Plato could not have put it better.