Over the next year or so we will yet again be subjected to the quadrennial public and overly publicized ritual of the American Presidential election. Not to say that this tradition should be entirely ignored or written off, but it would, however, serve us well to remember that the Commander in Chief of our country isn’t king of the world, though many have acted as such. No, the Presidential office is supposed to have certain limits placed upon it by the Constitution, and our system of checks and balances is also supposed to keep any one branch of our government from getting too powerful. So, why is it that every time we elect a new President, the arguments start getting more heated, people get worked up into a frenzy, and for months on end it seems like there is hardly anything else to be concerned about in our country? Sometimes it seems like it’s as if we were deciding the fate of the entire nation in this decision to elect one man. We rarely seem even half as concerned with what’s going on in the Legislative or Judicial branches of our government, unless there is something controversial happening.
One major reason why we care so much about who is President, and care so little about the rest, is because of public disengagement and mistrust. There is so much division amidst the Republican and Democratic parties, and infighting with each camp, that the average citizen tends to follow ideologically with one side or the other, and then completely distrusts the other side altogether. There is so much political pandering today that it seems the people even distrust the representatives whom they feel most closely aligned with by party affiliation. Most politicians act as though they pander to the public this way in order to keep support and preserve their existing or potential seat in office, but it’s not difficult to see right through it. And it’s no different with Presidential candidates. They try to say as many of the things they think their supporters might want to hear in order to get attention, gain more support, and ultimately get elected, or so one might think.
However, if we look beyond the back and forth banter of political debates and the public discourse over issues that mainly appeal to the emotions, having nothing really to do with law and order, then we can see the spectacle for what it is; a show, at best…a distraction at worst. Does anyone really believe so many politicians are so very out of touch with what people really expect and want from them? Are we really going to accept that polls give any indication of which candidates are being favored by any of the real people in this land? Just look at the most recent Republican debate that happened in mid-September for a good example of how American politics is more about entertaining and infuriating the people rather than engaging and serving them.
National expert on the American Presidency and American Political Development, Bruce Miroff, has some interesting things to say about the spectacle of the Presidency:
“Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of a spectacle is that the actions that constitute it are meaningful not for what they achieve but for what they signify. Actions in a spectacle are gestures rather than means to an end. What is important is that they be understandable and impressive to the spectators.”
Yes, symbols and gestures are the primary tools of the politician. We are all quite familiar with the perpetual problem of promises that nearly every politician makes and then breaks, as they campaign and are then elected and take office. Most don’t get too specific, and may run for office on some vague ideals with broad appeal, but then when it comes time to follow through with the things that were promised, well, you know how the story goes. That isn’t to say that any one person should be able to do all the things they hope to do once they get into a governmental position, but some don’t even seem to try. What it comes down to is that these gestures will often merely placate the demands of voters, who just want an effective representative, but unfortunately all they usually get are actors who just keep up the facade, and put on a good show.
Miroff goes on to offer an illustration made by another author regarding the spectacle of wrestling, saying,
“This distinction between gestures and means is illustrated by Roland Barthes in his classic discussion of professional wrestling as a spectacle. Barthes shows that professional wrestling is completely unlike professional boxing. Boxing is a form of competition, a contest of skill in a situation of uncertainty. What matters is the outcome; because this is in doubt, we can wager on it. But in professional wrestling, the outcome is preordained; it would be senseless to bet on who is going to win. What matters in professional wrestling are the gestures made during the match, gestures by performers portraying distinctive characters, gestures that carry moral significance. In a typical match, an evil character threatens a good character, knocks him down on the canvas, abuses him with dirty tricks, but ultimately loses when the good character rises up to exact a just revenge.”
This back and forth, the showmanship and false pretense of professional wrestling really does sound a lot like the spectacle of American politics, and particularly the long, drawn out drama of debates, campaign stumping, and subsequent media frenzy involved in the Presidential election. Miroff goes on once more, to draw his conclusion,
“It may seem odd to approach the presidency through an analogy with boxing and wrestling—but let us pursue it for a moment. Much of what presidents do is analogous to what boxers do—they engage in contests of power and policy with other political actors, contests in which the outcomes are uncertain. But a growing amount of presidential activity is akin to wrestling. The contemporary presidency is presented by the White House (with the collaboration of the media) as a series of spectacles in which a larger-than-life main character and a supporting team engage in emblematic bouts with immoral or dangerous adversaries.”
In this next Presidential election, let us not be drawn into the spectacle and the illusion that the person who occupies the Oval Office is solely responsible for deciding public policy. Of course, we want a President who is cooperative, open, and willing to make tough decisions. But that one person alone can’t entirely direct our course. We the people must take responsibility for being educated on the issues that will impact our lives, for voting in the candidates that will represent those interests most effectively, and for voicing our opinions to those who hold office when the time comes for making decisions. And, of course, every day we are the ones who must act with conviction and fortitude, for we the people are not the governed, we are the body politic.