Let Me Entertain You: The US Presidential Election and Politics as Theater
The top ten contenders for the 20016 Republican presidential nomination squared off in a televised debate-like scenario hosted by Fox News last week. The debate was eagerly anticipated, especially as to how the billionaire businessman, reality show host and front-runner Donald Trump would perform. Fifteen million people tuned in. Soon after the debate, blow-by-blow descriptions appeared in the press, with winners and losers announced in a combination of boxing and theater metaphors.
Televised debates have become part of the American political landscape. Since the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, the first televised presidential debates in American history, the Republican and Democrat parties have agreed and scheduled debates between their candidates during elections. Debates have also become part of the nomination process to help determine the final candidates of each party. The Republican Party went even further last week, scheduling a shorter debate between the various contenders for the nomination who were not among the top ten in pollings before the August 6 event.
This October, the seven federal councilors of Switzerland will be chosen. There will be no public debates. While each of the candidates to be councilor will meet with members of the different political parties, none of the meetings will be televised. None of the meetings will be open to the public either. There will be no direct confrontations between the different candidates. There will be no formal debates, no moderators posing questions, no involvement of civil society in the process. The choice of the councilors will be done by the elected members of the Parliament in a secret vote.
The election systems in the United States and Switzerland are radically different. This is not the time to elaborate on the how the president of the United States is elected. There will be plenty of time for that before November 8, 2016. What can be said now, in August 2015, is that the United States presidential electoral process has become theater. As columnist Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times of the evening of the Republican debates and the role of the Fox News moderators: “It was riveting. It was admirable. It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News. Did Fox take this combative approach because it was theatrical? Because it promised tension, promoted unease and was a sure route to reddened faces and raised voices? Of course. Nothing scares a network more than the prospect of a political snooze-fest, and candidates left to their own devices are candidates who drone on and on.” This is a New York Times columnist writing about a debate among candidates to be President of the United States praising the network for organizing a “riveting” evening with “tension” “raised voices” and “reddened faces”!
The leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has been called “our 21st-century reincarnation of P.T. Barnum.” Whether Trump continues to lead in the polls after his outrageous sexist comments during and after the debate, the comparison with Barnum is noteworthy. Barnum was the 19th century founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus and an admitted “showman by profession.” Trump is indeed a showman who has captured the attention of disgruntled voters who are tired of the usual political discourse. Trump entertains the voters, much to the dismay of mainstream Republicans and to the astonishment of the pundits.
Politics as theater; politics as entertainment; politics as circus. There is no question that performance has become more and more important on what is now the political stage, especially in the United States. Those B-grade actors, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, after all, became President and Governor of California. There is probably no room left for university professors/presidents like Woodrow Wilson or intellectuals like Adlai Stevenson.
It may sound churlish to compare the Swiss electoral system with that of the United States. The Sister Republics are no longer equal in size, nor do the presidents have comparable powers. Nevertheless, although the Swiss system does not have direct voting for its federal councilors – I am well aware that a so-called electoral college chooses the president of the United States – there is something reassuring that the election of the seven executives is not based on entertainment, performance or theater.
I accept that sports have moved to big business and entertainment. Roger Federer is more than just a tennis player. But to judge politicians by their performance value and entertainment skills misses the entire point of what politics is all about. The business of governing is serious business, and comparisons with sports and theater are like comparing apples and oranges. Although the October election in Switzerland may be criticized for its lack of transparency, the American process is not only too transparent, it is embarrassing. And bad theater.