Bread, Circuses and Debates
I have a confession to make: I love the Republican debates, and not for respectable reasons.
I have been glued to the Republican debates; each and every one fills me with the anticipation of 10 Super Bowls. As reflected by the participation in our live-tweeting parties and each episodes subsequent ratings, undoubtedly many share my enthrallment with the GOP’s drama as it unfolded on stage.
The Democratic debates? Not so much. It doesn’t help that the Democratic Party has purposefully set their debates for days when few will watch them, but what has really encumbered any fervent interest in them has more to do with the human dynamics on stage. While the Republican Party fights for its ideological soul, The Sanders/Clinton debates rarely take on the same existential charm.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that Democratic debates have been rather substantive. Writing for CNN, Julian Zelizer argued:
The contrast between the Democratic debate in Las Vegas and the first two times the Republican candidates met was striking. Those debates frequently looked like a political version of reality television. Donald Trump thrived in large part because of the overall quality of the discussions. “Unless the Democrats can talk one of the Kardashians into running,” joked CNN commentator Paul Begala, “don’t expect the Democrats’ ratings to approach the Republicans.”
While each Democrat in Las Vegas demonstrated a number of vulnerabilities as well as strengths — and there were a few moments when they delivered some zingy one-liners — what was most notable about the evening was the image that they conveyed about their party: this is a party that is focused on governance.
The Kansas City Star echoed similar sentiments:
That there’s even a discussion about health care initiatives among the Democrats is far better than the GOP scrum over the issue, which one can boil down to the tired and simplistic “repeal and replace.”
Americans would benefit greatly if candidates would discuss their real differences on serious issues facing the country.
The juvenile posturing among the gaggle of Republican candidates may be great for TV ratings. But it’s not a good way to help people select someone who might be the next president of the United States.
The Democratic Debates have been focused and concentrated, and thus, generally boring and uninteresting. I say that with a great deal of hesitance. I studied politics and worked in the field; I am supposed to be above the siren calls of clownish buffoons and charlatans prone to sensational derogatory tactics. Yet, I tune in to Republican debates in anticipation of more reality-show antics. There is a real philosophical divide playing out on stage, but I doubt the experience would be as pleasurable without its theatrical attributes. Our desire for bread and circuses now extends beyond the realm of sports ball and tabloids, but to our politics and the bearing of the state. Even sadder, I recognize that I am not above this mandate for politics to be entertaining. Evidently, the pulse of America beats in tandem with my own.
Augustus rightfully recognized that the masses could be kept orderly and content when their basic needs for sustenance and entertainment were met. The social contract between the Roman state and its plebeians was one advantageous to both; the levers of government endured in the hands of the educated elite while the common man enjoyed their spectacles. One of the most successful empires in history was built on this foundation.
What Augustus did not foresee was the state itself becoming the spectacle, with its politics necessitating a mirroring of the circuses the masses had become accustomed to. The Republican front-runner has been compared to other notable Italians, but his resilience is built on the plebeian’s need for entertainment rather than any sociopolitical vision. He is the manifestation of the circus, given life by a society yearning for theater in all things and at all times.
Imaginably, our empire may fall with a court jester being elevated to the heights of power, rather than barbarian hordes hammering at its gates.
(Image: Roman Mosaic from the Great Palace of Constantinople)