The Age of iPod Politics

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Imagine that America is a car. In fact — since we're talking about America here — imagine it's an SUV. We are packed in together, and it is a long drive. The sole thing that keeps us from bloodshed is that we have our own capacious beverage holders, business-class-size seats and entertainment pods. Dad has his satellite radio, Mom has her magazine, and the kids have their DVD consoles and MP3 players and Game Boy Advances, happily obliterating the unpleasant evidence of one another's existence.

The great American pacifier is our love of stuff and our ability to fashion our own insular worlds through our staggering selection of things to buy (even if we can't actually afford an SUV). But consumer America is different from political America. In consumer America, diversity of preference is not just tolerated. It is mandatory. The market has created reasons for us to be finicky and dissatisfied about anything — cable TV, pasta sauce, running shoes, yoga programs. It depends on you to like zesty Italian and me to like chipotle ranch and someone else to like low-sodium raspberry honey mustard. Through niche media, niche foods and niche hobbies, we fashion niche lives. We are the America of the iPod ads — stark, black silhouettes tethered by our brilliant white earbuds, rocking out passionately and alone. You make your choices, and I make mine. Yours, of course, are wrong. But what do I care?

It's not surprising that we would try to apply the same principle to politics and political news. Patching together customized networks of pundits, political comics, online news feeds and talk shows, we can choose among universes in which the polls show a dead heat or a blowout, the National Guard memos are truthful or fraudulent, the economy is rebounding or relapsing. You can watch Fox News and see your surrogate reduce my surrogate to a sputtering fool. I can go to my favorite political sites and follow the blogrolls, link after link, discovering how vast is the universe of people who realize that I am entirely right about everything. This virtual self-gerrymandering promotes black-and-white thinking. (On many political blogs, if there's one thing worse than an enemy, it's an ally who's not ideologically pure enough.) Yet it also makes for a kind of happy apartheid. You know that my naive ideas will lead America to crumble like Rome, and I know that morons like you are going to get me killed by a dirty bomb, but we never need to actually say a cross word to each other. Or anything at all, for that matter.

That blissful isolation has to break down eventually, though. The problem is, American politics are un-American. At least, they no longer fit the a la carte ethos of iPod America. You and I can't each have our own President. We can't have our own Supreme Court or our own assault-weapons law. If you don't like the USA Patriot Act, you can't delete it from your digital playlist.

In life, we ask TiVo or the Web or the Cheesecake Factory to indulge our slightest whims. Asking this is not selfish; in fact, it is a duty. ("Have it your way!" — was that an invitation or a command?) But under a political system devised before the dawn of the fixin's bar, we are suddenly asked to settle for those options that can please half the voters or, at least, five out of nine Supreme Court Justices. That rankles our American souls. We should be satisfied! We should be catered to! We specifically asked for the vinaigrette on the side! And so the losers grow more aggrieved in defeat and the winners less generous in victory. What is it, after all, that most aggravates Democrats about President Bush? That he campaigned as a centrist but led from the right; he lost the popular vote but governed as though he had won in a landslide. And why shouldn't he? In iPod America, every citizen — bolstered by his self-created echo chamber — is a landslide victor in his own head.

When it comes to presidential politics, there is no SUV. We all surrender our headsets and consoles and pile into a 1964 Chrysler with bench seats and no drink holders and one radio. And we have forgotten how we ever managed to ride in this damn thing without murdering one another. "I'm driving this car," says Papa George, "and I say we're listening to Toby Keith." Mama Laura taps her toes while Uncle John hums a Peter, Paul and Mary tune in protest. In back, half the kids sing along with the radio raucously, and the other half start shouting to drown them out. Outside the window, vast prairies and scenic prospects pass by, and dark storm clouds gather, unnoticed.

It is going to be a bumpy ride.