Two foes stepped once again into the grand electoral ring of death for an early November cage match to the finish. The pair of heavyweights exchanged vicious blows, but with a mighty swing of the steel folding chair, the Republicans have heroically put the Democrats down for the count with a bleeding gash over their eye.
But weep not for our Democratic warriors, they’ll be back. Weep instead for our nation and it’s future. Because with this most recent election, our politics have plummeted to absurd depths of shallowness and asininity. Elections are no longer a solemn referendum on the state of our union, they are merely a sideshow, another mindless form of vacuous entertainment for a populace that is already overwhelmed with similar frivolous retreats. Our National Elections have taken their rightful place next to America’s other favorite exposition of inanity, professional wrestling. Wrestling is a superficial spectacle meant to entertain the masses, and unfortunately, our elections and our political discourse has devolved in a similar manner. Parallels between the two can be found with ease.
HEROES vs. VILLAINS
The world of professional wrestling is famous for casting its characters in roles of good guys and bad guys, and those roles are constantly evolving. One week, you might find your favorite wrestler cast as a man of the people, fighting his battle against incredible odds. But tune in the next week, and you’ll witness that same wrestler flipping the bird to the fans while he leg-drops his lifelong friend. This sudden transformation of a hero into a villain is a defining feature of American politics. Just two short years ago, the Democrats were the party of the people, the saviors of our broken system. They were swept into power by a citizenry that had had enough of the malfeasance of the Republicans. It was going to be a new, brighter day with Barack Obama in charge. Now only two years have past, and in just that short time, those same citizens are once again searching for a hero. And even though the country was body-slammed over and over again by the Republicans for eight straight years, they are now recast as saviors. And don’t be fooled, this transition between good and evil will happen again in the near future. Americans will grow tired of Republicans, label them the bad guys, and once more call out to Democrats for redemption. Acts of betrayal followed by reparation is the main plot driver for the theater of wrestling. It is also the main driver that keeps us engaged in a political system that neglects our most basic needs. Everyone loves a winner. No matter what side you’re on, just wait four years (or in this case, two) and you’ll be back on top again.
Every wrestler that has ever lived has at some point or another claimed to be the “Greatest of All Time”. In the wrestling world, proclamations are made, promises are tendered and guarantees are wildly thrown about all without any requirements for backing them up or repercussions for falling short. For anyone who follows politics, does any of that sound at all familiar? Wrestlers may say some shameless things, but their biggest rival in that department is the members of our political class. When it comes to elections and campaigns, empty promises and insincere rhetoric have become the official language. How many candidates did you hear make the promise “I know how to create jobs” this election season? Regardless who made that claim, at no point was that phrase ever followed up by a concrete example of exactly how they might accomplish it. Candidates always claim to “share your values” and want “to clean up Washington”, but those words are never bolstered by any details or specific plans. And just like with wrestling, there is no accountability or follow-through. When I was in high school, I saw a “retirement match” between Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair live in Detroit. Whoever lost, would be forced to retire. There was most certainly a winner and a loser, but you better believe that both men continued to wrestle for another ten years. Our politicians are allowed to promise the world without ever being held to account. Voters would actually be wise to think that whenever a promise is made, you can almost expect to see the opposite result.
Long before the Tea Partiers made rampant racism and blind patriotism vogue, the world of professional wrestling placed these ideas front and center. When I first starting watching wrestling in the early 1980’s, the cast was filled with characters like Nikolai Volkov and The Iron Sheik. These characitures were designed to prey upon people’s deep animosities and insecurities of all things foreign. Ethnic wrestlers are always locked into a narrow-minded stereotype and are almost always cast as the villain. In the 1980’s it was Russians and Communists, today it’s Muslims with supposedly strong sympathies for Al-Qaeda. And these silly wrestling cartoons are always pitted against tanned, blonde-haired “American-looking” heroes who whip the crowd into a patriotic frenzy with chants of “USA, USA!” We don’t have to look hard or long at our modern political discourse to find similar strains of xenophobia. One could even make the argument that the entire Republican party embraces it to its extreme. Their platform consists of bombing middle-eastern countries, hunting down illegal immigrants, marginalizing the economic plight of minorities and screaming “terrorist-lover” to anyone who doesn’t comport with their myopic vision. But both sides of the spectrum include a built-in tendency to only embrace ideas that fall within the confines of their narrow-minded agenda. And both sides attempt to use patriotism to whip up support for any variety of causes. Appealing to people’s tribal instincts is to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and both wrestlers and politicians use it effectively.
Just as important as the action that goes on inside the wrestling ring is the action and commentary that exists on the sidelines. Wrestling announcers, hosts and interviewers play an integral role in the show. They provide an open mic for the wrestlers to advance their agenda and they provide the general framing of the storyline to help fans choose their sides. And they do all of this without the slightest concern for fairness or objectivity. The fans allegiances are influenced and formed by the instruction of the commentators. If one wrestler performs an illegal move during a match, that move can either be classified as ‘dirty’ or as ‘strategic’ based on the preordained script pushed forward by the announcers. If the wrestler is meant to be a villain, he will be the recipient of scorn and disdain from the sidelines. If he is meant to be a hero, the move will either be ignored or praised as ‘resourcefulness’. These commentators and announcers can find their equals in the political world in the form of the media. Our political media during times of elections believes it is not their job to call-out the objective truth. They believe their job is to amplify the conflicts, provide a sounding board for the participants and to stick to the preordained storylines at all costs. The confines of debates are framed ahead of time and are viewed by the media and then disseminated to the public only through the preexisting rubrics of thought. Our most recent election was predetermined to be a referendum on democrats and on incumbency in general. Regardless of whatever other notions may have been put forth, the media stuck to that narrative and pushed it relentlessly. Our political media does not advocate for truth, nor do they require that their interview guests be at all beholden to it. The empty claims that were described in the second item of this essay can exist only because the media allows them to happen. Our politicians are enabled to spread lies and propaganda because we have a media culture that seeks to be a part of the process instead of a countervailing force pressing against it. They are merely part of the show.
DON’T LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN
We all know that wrestling is fake. From beginning to end, the entire spectacle is staged. But that doesn’t stop millions of Americans from being totally engrossed and shelling out hundreds of dollars for tickets, merchandise and viewing rights for pay-per-view events. Everyone who attends a professional wrestling match (except for the youngest of kids) knows they are watching an artificial conflict, but that knowledge never compels them to recognize, call-out or rebel against that artificiality. The show can’t be fully enjoyed unless its inherent fictitiousness is embraced to the full. The fans choose to ignore the lies that exist right in front of their face. Our elections are driven by a similar willfully ignorant ideology. Our media and our candidates prompt the voters to believe that the current election is of momentous importance. They want us to think that our vote will carry all the weight and significance of a heavyweight title bout, but while they do this, they neglect to pull back the curtain to allow us to witness the elaborate charade that lies behind. Voters are not educated to learn that the differences between candidates are relatively small. We are not shown the true records of those who seek reelection. We are led astray from the real issues that have tangible affects on our lives and we are forced to focus on sideshow spectacles dominated by name-calling and rank demagoguery. Just like wrestling, our elections are an illusion; a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic. The problem is that the voters know this. People in our country have real problems that they know are going unaddressed. But every two years, instead of unified action from all of us, voters fall victim to this illusion and start to believe that the fault simply lies with those from the other party. Wrestling fans know that the match is fake, but they still get whipped into a frenzy when the action begins. Similarly, voters know that our elections are fake, but they still insist on embracing the notion that a vote for a Republican instead of Democrat will somehow make a difference. In both examples, its nothing more than willful ignorance from those looking to be entertained.
So the 2010 mid-term elections have come and gone, and the Republicans have triumphed in the steel cage against the Democrats. We witness conservative voters who stand and cheer at the victory while liberal voters look for consolation and start plotting their strategy for the next match. While all of this cheering and mourning continues, the grand electoral illusion, with all of its fireworks and engrossing plot lines, endures unabated. Our elected leaders brandish their shiny new heavyweight belts, while their media enablers begin studying how to increase ratings for the next event. And if the illusion is continuing, so too is the misery felt by the millions who’s needs will continue to go unanswered. Our elections are nothing more than a state-sponsored form of entertainment, a competitive spectacle meant to distract voters from engaging in the kind of actions that could actually better their lives. We need to drop our affiliations to political parties as if they were our favorite wrestlers or favorite football teams. We need to require more from our leaders and our media than just mindless political gratification. Wrestling is shallow and fake and violent and awful, but it has no affect on our shared welfare. Politics and elections, on the other hand, have widespread consequences for us all. The ramifications of treating the dealings of our Republic like a heavyweight bout are serious and will continue to worsen if they go uncorrected. We can either choose to demand more, or we can be left behind, watching as two parties take turns knocking each other out with punches that don’t even connect.