The Political Circus We Deserve

The political circus gets a bad wrap. Maybe it shouldn't.

The political circus may have finally come into its own this primary season.

We’ve all heard that phrase before of course. Last September the president used it in his jobs speech when he urged congress to “stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.”

H.L. Mencken once wrote that “A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.” Elections are inherently competitive, and for those who care about the outcomes of our democratic process, the stakes are compelling – entertaining even. But it’s hard to recall a time when the sport of politics has been so aptly described as a political circus. A sports game? Sure. A circus – 2012 is already taking the cake.

Indeed, for reasons partly manufactured and partly inevitable no election year has felt so much like a season of reality television. Think about it: reality-TV star and real-estate mogul Donald Trump flirted with a presidential run early on. Once-action-movie-star Chuck Norris has waffled between endorsements of Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. Herman Cain joined Stephen Colbert for a mock rally in South Carolina. The lines between entertainment and politics are only getting more blurry as the race goes on.

The Fine Line Between Entertainment And Politics

In some ways, this has played right into the hands of politicians who can capitalize on the entertainment factor to shore up support. Newt Gingrich in particular has relied on audience participation to gain momentum in the debates. In South Carolina, Newt’s surge in the polls followed two rowdy debate performances in which the former speaker was able to galvanize the conservative audience with his angry denunciations of the liberal media, turning critical questions from debate moderators into attacks on the media.

After a subdued performance in the first of the Florida debates, in which the crowd was prevented from cheering and clapping by debate rules, Gingrich threatened to sit out the next debate if audience participation was kept to a minimum. Likening the silencing of the audience to a stifling of free speech, Gingrich complained that NBC’s decision to keep the crowd quiet was an attempt to clamp down on dissenting opinions.

“I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong,” Gingrich said on Fox and Friends. “And I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate.”

As Aaron Goldstein notes, this is hardly the case of the media attempting to clamp down on free speech. The rules in place at NBC are old ones. “The debate audiences at NBC, CBS and ABC behave like they’re at a tennis match,” he writes. “The audiences at Fox News and CNN are far more expressive and that works to Newt’s advantage. A sedate audience like the one [in the first Florida debate] at NBC doesn’t play to Newt’s strengths.”

Campaigns have always been negative – they  just haven’t always had Twitter, 24 hour news cycles, and the blogsophere.

All The World’s A Stage

Note even the language we use to describe the debates. We talk about debate “performances” as if all the race is a stage and all the candidates merely players. Blogs and new media only add to the 24/7 cable news with headlines emphasizing how one candidate has “demolished” the other, or describing debate wins as “smackdowns.” Violent imagery accompanies our descriptions of the political circus and talking points and video clips mimic the reality-TV strategy of emphasizing only the most dramatic or controversial moments of any debate.

Add to this the flood of attack ads, YouTube video mash-ups, and talk-radio coverage and it’s not hard to see how this primary season is redefining the role of entertainment in politics. Super PACs are relentlessly attacking our airwaves and television screens. One Super PAC associated with the Gingrich campaign even produced its own Michael Moore-esque documentary to attack Mitt Romney for his time at the helm of Bain Capital. Meanwhile talk-radio and the rest of the conservative entertainment complex has grown into a seriouspolitical force during the three years of the Obama administration.

The line between political commentary and entertainment is a fuzzy one on both Fox News and talk-radio figures like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Controversy sells tickets and makes many of these pundits bags of money. Almost as troubling, many young people have described The Daily Show as their number one source for news. As politics and entertainment grow more indistinguishable, are we losing our ability to tell the one from the other?

Stupid Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

Even the rules of the Republican primary have been changed to make the race more engrossing.

Jealous of the edge-of-your-seat quality the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama Democratic 2008 primary, and the political enthusiasm it inspired in many Democrats and liberals, the Republican party has changed its own rules to try to capture some of that magic for their own party’s primary. Rather than a winner-take-all system, candidates in the 2012 race receive proportional delegates. This ensures that every candidate who remains in the race gets at least a few delegates, increasing the likelihood of a protracted, competitive race.

It’s a win-win for the party, the candidates themselves, and the media. Increased enthusiasm leads to more voters at the polls and a better chance that the eventual nominee can topple Obama. Candidates like Gingrich have a better chance of stealing the show from the presumptive front-runner. And the big broadcasters get more debates and more controversy to report on. Meanwhile bloggers and online media can capitalize on the extended race with more eyeballs and page views.

Newt’s threat to sit out thelast debate was indeed a childish temper tantrum but it makes sense if we look at the big picture. After all, we’re all engaged in this circus. Newt is just one of many willing participants. Reality television has been successful because enough people are willing to watch it week after week. The same is true of reality politics.

The Political Circus We Deserve

Critics of the political circus argue that it’s denigrating our political system, our leaders, and the national dialogue. All of this may be true, but I’m not convinced it’s such a bad thing. Chuck Todd complained recently that Stephen Colbert’s fake candidacy made “a mockery of the system” and the media. But a mockery is exactly what the system needs. It’s what the media needs, for that matter.

If candidates make fools of themselves in national debates then the debates have done voters a great service. If the political circus has candidates bending backwards to pander to the conservative base, well at least we have good examples of why the candidates may not be fit for political office, let alone the highest office in the land. If Newt’s demagogic acrobatics are the only thing that can propel him to victory, then at least the voting public can have examples of this at their fingertips.

It’s often said that Americans get the politicians we deserve. I couldn’t agree more. Reality politics can function as a window into the shortcomings and failures of our political class, our government, and our political system more broadly. Of course, none of it is a laughing matter. But there’s no better way to vet our future political leaders than to let them run this gauntlet of their own making.

Besides, do we really want to return to the debates of the past? I watched a Reagan-Carter debate from 1980 the other day and came away no more informed about the character of either man. The debate was certainly more substantial, but it was also a lot more boring. And there is something discomfiting about the pomp and circumstance surrounding these old debates, as if these men deserve our adoration more than our criticism.

The media has changed radically since 1980. For the most part, this is a good thing. The big broadcasters have lost some of their vice-like grip on the political discussion. The old white men who droned their questions out three decades ago to the old white men on stage no longer have a monopoly on the news.

Maybe this will someday translate into more voter participation, less apathy, and a more critical approach to how we view both our political leaders and the news. Of course, it may have the opposite effect. But the political circus is here to say. It’s the inevitable result of endless news, social media, and the internet – a true evolution of democracy playing out right before our eyes.

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.