Drudge, with his droll Dickensian name, was not the only media or political agent whose actions led to John Kerry's defeat. But his role placed him at the center of the game -- a New Media World Order in which Drudge was the most potent player in the process and a personi?cation of the dynamics that did Kerry in. Drudge and his ilk made Kerry toxic -- and unelectable.
Toxicity is the new de?ning trait of modern American politics. The toxins themselves are not new. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton initially clashed like gentlemen (albeit venomously) over the limits of federal power and the future of the economy, but when news of Hamilton's saucy mistress Maria Reynolds surfaced, thanks to nonpartisan busybody James Callender, Jefferson was content to let the accusatory pamphlets ?y.
Anger, prurience, invective, conspiracy theory -- all are native ?owers on the American landscape. What is new is the greenhouse in which these blossoms are cultivated and sold. This greenhouse was built on two beams. The ?rst was the disintegration of editorial ?lters in the Old Media, which in an earlier age prevented the most salacious tales and bitter accusations (though certainly not all) from entering the public arena.
The New Media -- talk radio, cable television, Internet websites -- for the most part never had these editorial ?lters. Many of its leading voices, Drudge among them, are openly contemptuous of the very idea. The Old Media, faced with ?lter-free competition, responded by loosening or discarding its own.
This in turn helped promote, and was promoted by, the second beam, the erosion of basic habits of decorum and self-restraint, in politics and media alike. In an earlier generation, these habits meant that people more often refrained from fully expressing how much they loathed one another. In the current generation, self-restraint is commonly regarded as a weakness and rarely is rewarded economically or politically.
The result is that the extreme and eccentric voices who always populated the margins of politics now reside, with money and fame as the rewards, at the center. Michael Moore, please say hello to Ann Coulter. The collapse of ?lters and the collapse of civility together have changed the purpose of politics. The goal now is not simply to win, but to persuade voters (and donors and viewers and readers) that an opponent lacks the character and credibility even to deserve a place in the contest. That is Freak Show politics.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were sitting on the stage in Little Rock because they learned to navigate the Freak Show -- and even to use it to their advantage. Al Gore and John Kerry were sitting in the audience because they did not. Were it not for the Freak Show, Kerry's title today likely would be President of the United States. Instead Kerry's title is Case Study.