Perpetual National Elections Make the Top 1% Richer
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Their Bread, Our Circus
In ancient Rome, the emperors provided the capital’s inhabitants with “bread and circuses.” Ever since, that combination has been shorthand for rulers buying off the ruled with the necessities of life and spectacle.
In Rome, that spectacle involved gladiatorial and other elaborate games of death that took place in the Colosseum. In this age, our rulers, the 1% whose money has flooded the electoral cycle, are turning the election itself into our extended circus. This year, a series of Republican televised “debates” have glued increasing numbers of eyeballs to screens -- and not just Republican eyeballs, either. Everyone waits for the latest version of a reality show to produce the next cat fight, fabulous gaffe, late-night laugh line, confession, denial, scandal, or plot twist, the next thumbs up or, far better, thumbs down on some candidate’s increasingly brief political life in the arena.
Think of it as their bread and our circus. Who can doubt that, like the crowds of Rome once upon a time, we await the inevitable thumbs-down vote and the YouTube videos that precede and follow it with a kind of continuing bloodlust? The only problem: however strange all this may be, it’s not, at least in the old-fashioned sense, an election nor does it seem to have much to do with democracy. The fact is that we have no word for what’s going on. Semi-democracy? Unrepresentative democracy? 1% democracy? Demospectacracy?
Of course, we still speak of this as a presidential election campaign, and it’s true that 11 months from now more than 60% of the voting age population will step into polling booths across the country and cast ballots. But let’s face it, if this is an election at all, it’s certainly one stricken with elephantiasis. Once, as now, a presidential race had primaries, conventions, campaigning, mudslinging, and sometimes even a few debates, but all of this had limits. In recent years, the limits -- almost any limits -- have been disappearing. Along the way, the process has expanded from an eight-month-long affair that most voters only began to attend to sometime in the fall of election year to a perpetual campaign, perpetually discussed, reported on, and displayed.
The primaries, for instance, have been on a forced march toward ever-earlier dates. Iowa’s -- actually a “caucus” -- is now on January 3rd of election year and the first official primary, New Hampshire’s is on January 10th. (Over the years, it’s repeatedly had to move its date forward from March to hold onto that status.) This time around, the “debates” leading up to the primaries began last May; previously meaningless party “straw polls,” covered as monumental events by hundreds of reporters, accompanied them; the first of a World War I-style barrage of attack ads was launched in the same period, and the opinion polls on various constellations of likely (or unlikely) candidates -- what Jonathan Schell once called our “serial elections” -- preceded everything, accompanied by endless media speculation about them.
It's an ever-expanding system, engorging itself on money and sucking in ever larger audiences. It’s the Blob of this era. In fact, the next campaign now kicks off in the media the day after (if not the day before) the previous election ends with speculation (polls soon to follow) handicapping the odds of future candidates, none yet announced.
The Perpetual Campaign
Once upon a time, the perpetual candidate -- former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen was the classic example -- proved a kind of running joke. No longer. Now, the president himself essentially begins his campaign for a second term almost as soon as he enters the Oval Office.