Politics of Spectacle


I was watching something on Fox this week and was struck by some of the ads I saw for the Super Bowl. The ads were advertising that a full day of coverage on Super Sunday would begin with a morning of Fox News political coverage on “the other big contest” going on: the presidential election. Following this would be the main event: the Patriots vs. Giants. The ad seemed to suggest that together it was a day of utter and extreme Americanisms: our “two favorite pastimes: sports and politics.” Pull up a chair, get some beer and pizza, and revel in the spectacles of debate and conflict and fighting and smash-em-up democracy!

There are many things wrong with this framing discourse of “Super Sunday” (not least of which is the obvious untruth that Americans care as much about politics as we do about sports!), but the thing that most disturbs me is this equivocation of our electoral process with something as airy and insignificant and superfluous as the Super Bowl. Are we seriously trying to say that the current presidential election is mass entertainment? A spectacle?

Unfortunately, this is not really a new trend. For decades now, American media have been turning politics into a spectacle—a three ring circus of strategy, intrigue, danger, rousing victories and epic defeats. Turn on cable news on any given night and you get some grade-A melodrama posing as political discourse.

Exhibit A of the spectacle-ization of American politics happened on Thursday night in (the very appropriate location of) Hollywood. It was the Democratic debate on CNN—live from the Kodak theater (aka the home of the Oscars and nexus of all that Hollywood represents). Did anyone watch this debate? First of all, it was hardly a debate. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were as chummy as any two competing politicians have ever been. There was very little actual debate and even less clarification for the voters.

But it was compelling TV! It was a spectacle! And boy did the stars turn out in force to drive home that point… Every time the camera panned to the audience it focused on another celebrity’s face. Liberal stalwarts Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner were there, along with familiar faces like Diane Keaton (in her Charlie Chaplin/Annie Hall getup), Stevie Wonder (stood up and cheered a lot), and Pierce Brosnan (wait—can he even vote? Isn’t he British?). But what can explain the presence of Brandy? Or Topher Grace? Or the guy who plays Andy on The Office? What are they doing here? To give CNN the glitz and glamour that Anderson Cooper and Angelina Jolie have tried so hard to achieve?

In any case, it was funny to watch the reaction shots of various B celebrities whenever Obama or Clinton said something about how ridiculously awful George W. Bush has been. It’s almost a Pavlovian instinct for many of them, I think: “Bush ruins everything”=clap and cheer! (because who wants to cheer for boring and complex solutions to issues like healthcare and social security?). It’s much more fun and gleefully vague to “cheer for change”!

Indeed. What fun this all is! There should be an “Election 2008” reality show or something. Ryan Seacrest could host it and every night millions could call in and vote on how well each candidate looked and performed during whatever debate or speech had just happened. It would be a ratings hit for whatever channel it was on, and doubtless way more people would get “excited” about our electoral process (as long as we could text in our vote). And then perhaps one day ads during Super Tuesday will sell for just as much as on Super Sunday. A Super Week of consumerist pop-hedonism/politics! Totally win win.

12 responses to “Politics of Spectacle

  1. Brett said:

    Pierce Brosnan (wait—can he even vote? Isn’t he British?).

    Pierce Brosnan is NOT British — he is Irish — an Irish/American since 2004 when he became a U.S. citizen.

    So, yes — he can vote. :)

  2. It is indeed a sad state. But it’s reflective of the culture we live in. In an entertainment age, there is no greater prize than amusement.

  3. I wonder if my knee-jerk apathy when it comes to politics is any better than the behavior of the Bush-bashing B-listers…

  4. Thank you for your honest look at politics. You are correct…our political as well as our entire national system of Government is a mess. Less than 25% of Americans even have any confidence in those we elect. And we are the ones electing them! I hope you might bring to light the inequity of PAY we lavish on Football stars. What is wrong with a society when 80,000 people will fill a stadium (some paying $1,000 a ticket) and millions and millions of people will watch on TV an hour long sporting event but gripe and moan when it comes to paying higher taxes for teacher or police pay?

  5. I agree, that’s why I could never understand the elections of Reagan and Schartzenegger. Glib and Glitz without substance.

  6. I forgot to add. If Brandy is yesteryear. What in the world is Chuck Norris, who seems to be joined at the hip to Huckabee.

  7. In the past month or so, I have become aware of my own ignorance when it comes to the media and the inherent sensationalism that it projects about different types of news.

    You have articulated much of what I have been trying to understand recently with regards to politics. Shamefully, it is something I have actively avoided paying attention to — but, in the end you can’t escape its impact.

    A newfound thought-process of my own involves taking a more critical look at the media (and news in particular as it is reported in the U.S.). Then attempting to gauge how much more informed I am becoming through mass consumption of said media (although, my intake is has not achieved any sort of mass, yet).

    In just that short amount of time, it is clear the the mass-miserablism and infotainment party line of the media requires positive change. Thankfully, like you, I am able to speak or write about it with the hope that it will bring about some awareness, which could lead to change.

    This is my first time on your blog (found through Relevant), and I will continue to follow the feed here as well. Take care.

  8. Chuck Norris made a comeback (hate it or love it). Brandy? What? Who? That’s why she is clearly “yesteryear”.

  9. Wow. That is the best written piece of anything I have read in a long while. It was also the first time since I-can’t-remember-when that I was genuinely intectually stimulated, at least to that level. I honestly felt as if I’d been sleeping in a media-fog until I read it. Thank you for saying so articulately what so many of us have been frustrated with. I pray the thinking majority will discontinue their silence and end this absurdity by speaking out through their actions. Vote.

    If I may try your patience with one more comment, I’d like to speak regarding the apathy that results from thinking that all politicians are evil so no vote counts. This simply isn’t true. While many may effectively argue how a vote is simply choosing ‘the lesser of two evils,’ I hasten to urge that we must at least choose the lesser!!!

    For too long, cynicism has silenced those individuals who are aware enough to be discouraged by popular trends. Sure, we may not get our ideal candidate into office–but to therefore give up on the freedom so many have died for is an absurd leap to the extreme. For those who have faith, I propose a look at the diabolical influence in such thinking. Please pray and vote. And don’t sell out to socialism (disguised as “liberal democracy”).

    I still love my country.

    “All that is necessary for evil to flourish is that good men do nothing.” Alexis de Toqueville

  10. I also read this via Relevant’s 850, and kudos on the writing–thought provoking, witty, and downright interesting. Thanks

  11. I couldn’t agree less with this. You are probably the same person who faults celebrities for being too concerned with shallow things as well. You can’t have it both ways. And why wouldn’t you give a celebrity the same benefit of the doubt that you give other politically-minded individuals? Is it possible that they, perhaps care about their country? With record turnout projected at this years elections, I think our country is blessed to have so many different people calling us toward the democratic process. One side of the isle has problems with celebrities influencing the masses, the other side has problems with religious leaders influencing the masses. I think we probably all just about break even. If you think celebrities are influencing the culture politically in a negative way, why not be a positive voice and try to influence people in a positive way?

    By the way – Huckabee picked up another celebrity endorsement – from the Baldwin brother who was in Usual Suspects…

  12. Well said Megan! Aren’t celebrities still American too? And why should we chide them for having an opinion about who to vote for, even if it doesn’t agree with our own? While I do agree that perhaps the media sensationalizes them and their opinions a little too much, I do feel like not enough people in this country participate in the political process. Many people are totally clueless when it comes to who’s running for president but they know all about the finalists on American Idol or the latest episode of Lost.

    This is a historical election, and I say whatever it takes to get people involved. I do pray that those people who are so influenced by celebrities would then take the time to educate themselves about the candidates and the process and not be swayed by popular opinion. But I don’t think silencing celebrities is a good idea since they have to cast a ballot in November just like we do.

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