Politics of Spectacle

clintonobama1.jpg 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.