In today's national political scene, citizens are merely props in a carefully choreographed dramatic narrative that resembles a Hollywood movie set more than it does an American democracy. Joan Didion's Political Fictions, a collection of essays previously published in The New York Review of Books, proves this thesis with stiletto-sharp prose and ample sources to sway even the most skeptical reader. Didion, the author of five novels and five nonfiction books, walks readers through the various sets, starting with the 1988 presidential election and ending with the 2000 election. The actors, designers, directors and writers of these various campaigns are the nation's permanent professional political class Washington D.C., insiders who create, disseminate and then argue the storyline among themselves. The public is dragged along for the ride, but if their viewpoints differ too sharply from those of the pundits and politicians, they are condemned as proof of America's declining morality. Neither Democrats nor Republicans make it through Political Fictions unscathed. Didion tells us what we already suspected: the two parties have merged into a hybrid containing elements of sloppy journalism, power-hungry attorneys, mediocre candidates and a nostalgic yearning for an America that last existed in the 1950s, if it ever existed at all. While carefully and intelligently outlining the co-opting of the political process by the rich, the powerful and the new compassionate conservatives, Didion does not blame non-voting citizens. Rather than describing them as apathetic, the term the press loves to use, she presents chilling research that suggests today's non-voter has less education, less money and less voice in the political process than those who do cast ballots. When faced with the reality of voting i.e., money buys access and access buys votes the majority of the public has simply given up.
If one ever needed a compelling reason to become involved in the political process, Political Fictions will provide that impetus. Didion stays clear of shrill ideology, and her attention to detail continues to place her among this country's best interpreters of current events.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir.