Having these two realms of entertainment and politics intersect ‘gives people a context to think differently…and I think it’s very powerful,’ says former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers.

The line between entertainment and politics seems to blur more than ever at this moment in history. Last Tuesday, the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future hosted an event for their Political Conversations series about Entertainment Politics.

The event featured a discussion with former Clinton White House Press Secretary, Dee Dee Myers, and former Tonight Show comedy-writer, Jon Macks, led by the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and USC professor, Robert Shrum. 

During the talk, the panel was able to comment on various issues, including the current state of politics and its strangely intimate relationship with entertainment in today's world.

Robert Schrum, Dee Dee Myers, and Jon Macks
Robert Schrum, Dee Dee Myers, and Jon Macks

Politics in Late Night

One of the biggest developments in entertainment over the past few years has been the political saturation of late-night comedy.

Late-night programming in the U.S. has become à la carte. "You have something for everybody," says Macks. Whether you're talking about Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert's monologues, comedic news briefings like the Daily Show, or sketches on Saturday Night Live, politics has become pervasive.

But late-night politics seems to reflect a very one-sided viewpoint. A more liberal perspective in media may serve to balance out a conservative government, but Macks boil it down: "Creatives try to shake up the institutions we've put in place, but we're missing the conservative analog." Myers agrees, considering that "we should write more shows as geared towards the middle."

Macks expects a "swing-back" — that after 2020, comedy and TV writing will get more lighthearted and entertainment will have more diverse voices telling diverse stories.

Skewed Image, Divisive Politics

With the increased visibility of popular media creating caricatures of politics, it can be hard to distinguish the line between fact and fiction. Entertainment, particularly comedy, tends to take its punchlines from a limited aspect of politicians and the government.

But because of this wide variety and close coverage, Myers says "people get a pretty good sense of politicians because we have so much exposure to them and you see them in real time and in live situations. And I don't think the public is wrong in those regards." 

Macks is more worried about how people's perceptions of politicians divide us: "with something like the September 11 attacks, for those four days, we were united. My big fear is when the next event, whatever it may be, happens again, this will have created such a deep rift that we won't be able to come together."

The main issue for Myers is being able to forgive the small missteps in politics that the public can blow out of proportion. "I don't know how anybody succeeds in an environment where half of the country is going to judge you as a failure from day one from the minute you walk into the office because they don't like the 'cut of your jib'. When can we bring forgiveness or empathy back into this culture?"

The panel talks about their experiences in entertainment and politics.
The panel talks about their experiences in entertainment and politics.

So What's Next?

With the midterm elections fast approaching, it's easy to give in to the tension and confusion built up over months of partisan clashing. What is important to think about before November? Myers and Macks say it might even be more important to think about the after.

Macks believes that if we take a step back and ask ourselves, 'what happens after the election?' or  'how do you treat the results?',  we might begin to see what the outcomes mean for the country instead of what they mean for one's personal political views. "I'm a foolish optimist," he says, "and it probably won't happen, but it's what I'd like to see."

Myers concurs, recounting: "There were periods of our political past where it felt hopeless and it felt like the country was on a dark path and evil forces had taken over our politics. Maybe it's trying to understand that there is a way out. What gets us out of it?"

"It's some kind of belief in something bigger than ourselves and that, even if we have 350 million people in this country, we don't always have to agree. We have to agree that it's okay to disagree and it's important to fight it out at the ballot box. But we also have to realize that the wheel is going to turn, that we're going to figure out how to get through this."