Transparent Illusions

The Penn & Teller Election

04.17.12 8:15 PM ET

Back in the 1980s, Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller reinvented the magic show. As they performed their tricks, they would describe to the audience in real time how the illusions were created. And guess what? The tricks still worked! The audience liked them as much as ever!

I think of Penn & Teller as I watch the outraged reactions to Hillary Rosen and Ted Nugent.

Everybody can see what is going on here:

The two great parties both face enthusiasm shortfalls. Republicans were never overwhelmed by Mitt Romney; the Democratic delirium for Barack Obama faded two recovery summers ago.

To corral dispirited voters, both parties must redirect their supporters attention from ho-hum candidates to more sure-fire excitement. Except maybe for a war on Christmas, nothing revs up Republicans like a slight against at-home moms. Democrats depressed by unemployment statistics and gasoline presses still come to life when they hear a violent threat from a redneck gun-nut.

At some level—some level very near the level of conscious thought—we all understand that mothers-at-home and gun-rights are not remotely at issue in the election of 2012. We all understand that Ted Nugent is not Rush Limbaugh and that Hillary Rosen is not the Jesse Jackson of the 1980s: leaders of powerful sub-factions whom party leaders cannot safely repudiate. Nugent and Rosen are purely private people expressing purely private opinions that their parties can repudiate risk-free.

But it doesn't matter! Even though we all get the joke, the joke still works. And it'll work once more when it's redeployed again, probably as early as next week.