Thursday, October 11, 2012
Forget Boxing, the 2012 Election is More Like Professional Wrestling
The news media and pundits love to use sports analogies when discussing American politics. When describing the 2012 race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, boxing is their sport of choice.
Obama's supporters have inaccurately described his defeat by Romney in the first debate as a version of a deep game that is modeled on Muhammad Ali's legendary "rope-a-dope" strategy against George Foreman. Romney's backers claimed that he scored a TKO over Barack Obama, leaving the President flat on his back in the ring after the first debate.
In keeping with the boxing metaphor, the second debate in the 2012 presidential campaign features Joe Biden, a wizened, experienced pugilist from the mean streets of Scranton versus a scrappy upstart with much to prove named Paul Ryan.
But what if the analogy is inaccurate?
Boxing is a poor fit for describing the presidential race between these two candidates. Boxing is a sport prefaced on merciless violence. People have been killed in the ring, or left handicapped, brain damaged, and physically broken by a match.
I am not not discounting the substantive differences between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's approach to governance, public policy, or stewardship of the Common Good. This election represents a clear difference on issues such as reproductive rights, public schools and education, tax policy, and health care reform. I also think that a Romney presidency would border on the disastrous for a country struggling to find its way out of the greatest economic downturn in 80 years.
While the stakes are very high, a choice between Obama and Romney cannot be reduced to a blood sport. Yes, political polarization, the rise of the New Right, and the White populism of the Tea Party do signal an increasing chasm and gulf in our society, that if recent surveys and research are to be believed, has limited our ability to relate to one another and imperiled the ability of the State to respond to issues of common concern.
However, there are great areas of overlap between the Republicans and Democrats which are little discussed. Neither Obama or Romney will engage in a substantive discussion of wealth inequality, the destruction of unions and manufacturing, a flat minimum wage, and the power of economic elites in this country to subvert democracy.
Both will continue a policy of American empire and intervention abroad. Both Romney and Obama have demonstrated a lack of willingness to address the rise of the surveillance state, and the continual erosion of privacy and personal liberty under the guise of "the War on Terror."
And of course, Obama and Romney will not discuss the realities of the color line, the semi-permanence of white racism, and how race and class intersect to limit the life chances of many tens of millions of Americans.
In all, the 2012 election features a centrist Right-leaning Democrat who would have been a Rockefeller Republican in another era running against a flip-flopping, quasi-moderate, near sociopathic Republican who will do anything to win the White House. Regardless of the outcome, the Republic will survive; moreover, a fight over a very narrow area of public policy which does little to challenge Power will continue unabated.
Contemporary American politics is more like professional wrestling than a boxing match.
The outcomes are predetermined in the former. Consequently, the force of personalities, storytelling, and the to and fro between competitors (what we wrestling fans call "in-ring generalship" and "workrate") are the elements of a great match. Professional wrestling is a spectacle that succeeds by drawing the audience into the story and manipulating their emotions.
The same logic holds true in the race between Obama and Romney. All one needs to do is examine the 24 hour news cycle and the media's desperate effort to find a story--any story at all--to keep the public's attention. Alternatively, the pundit classes' obsession with the presidential "horse race" is another example of where the story is the thing, and the narrative will be told in such a way as to produce the illusion of a very competitive race. Consequently, the public will be caught up in the action--and not necessarily the substance (or implications) of what is being discussed.
There are other parallels between boxing and professional wrestling as well.
1. Before the rise of the World Wrestling Federation (now called the WWE), professional wrestling was divided up into various territories. The South, Northeast, Mid Atlantic Texas, Florida, the Northwest, Chicago, the Midwest, and California all had their various wrestling fiefdoms run by individuals or families. Wrestlers would move from place to place, building up their popularity by doing shows, and then if lucky, challenging the regional champion. Eventually, those regional associations were eaten up and collapsed into two large entities. They controlled the stars, put on the big shows, and got the TV time. The smaller, independent promotions were left to fend for themselves and fill out the rest of the market for a niche audience.
The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are the big wrestling companies and territories of contemporary politics.
2. Who has the "book?" This is wrestling-talk for who controls the outcome of the match and plans the storylines. Depending on the era, the booker could be a trusted older wrestler who paid his dues, knows how to tell a story, and can mentor young talent. In other situations, the book was held by the owner. If it is your money on the line, what better way to serve your own interests than to determine the outcomes of your own shows? Vince McMahon is that figure in the WWE. In the now defunct AWA, it was their champion and owner, the legendary Verne Gagne, who came up with the stories and (for a long time) was also their star performer.
In American politics, this matter is a bit more complicated . It is true that the big money interest groups have an outsized influence in what transpires. They help to influence the "storylines" and to shape what is placed on the national agenda. The Super Pacs, and the Koch Brothers for example, are the guys playing politics in the locker room and gaming the system for themselves.
However, the real bookers are those centers of power in American society that always seem to benefit regardless of who is in office. These are the military industrial complex, the financier class, the banksters, and other global plutocrats. All they care about is that the tickets are sold, and that the concessions are purchased because he who holds "the book" is often the owner as well. Regardless of the outcome, they are going to get paid.
3. The talking heads and news analysts "frame" the news for the public. In professional wrestling, there are announcers who favor the villain or "heel." Others talk up "the face" or good guy. And there are commentators who break the rules and wink at the audience by balancing a discussion of a wrestler's in-ring ability and prowess, with a subtle concession that none of this is in fact "real." In fact, the commentators are being told what to say by the bookers backstage. Just like the referees in the ring, the announcers are all part of an elaborate and highly choreographed show that is designed to win over the audience's emotions.
MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and the other major news networks are doing the color commentary for American politics. Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Joe Scarborough, and others are the Jim Ross and Jerry the King Lawlers of the TV pundit class. Their job is first and foremost to spin a story and keep the public interested in the shows. High ratings equal more ad revenue.
4. Managers were once featured characters in professional wrestling. Managers were a great asset because they could help a physically gifted wrestler who was not talented verbally to get his story across to the audience. Some would babysit and mentor wrestlers on the road in order to keep them out of trouble. A great manager could also add an "X factor" to a wrestler, by being a secret weapon of sorts to help him or her win a match. The greatest wrestling managers were amazing personalities who had devoted followings: their relationship with a wrestler could guarantee them a shot at instant credibility and popularity with the fans.
Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are the best talkers on the Right. Ed Schultz and Lawrence O'Donnell are the best talkers on the Left. In professional wrestling, the former would be amazing heel managers because of their smugness, craftiness, and ability to make the audience hate them; the latter would be great assets for a face who was not particularly gifted on the mic, and who needed someone sharp and passionate to help them tell their story.
5. Fans are integral to professional wrestling. If we do watch on the TV, attend live shows, buy the DVDs, share our stories, and pass on the legacy from one generation to the next, then the hobby and the "sport" will die. The greatest matches in professional wrestling manipulated the crowd's emotions, took the fans on a journey, and played out an epic struggle between two titans. From Andre vs. Hogan, to Steamboat vs. Flair, the epic battles between Flair and Dusty, and the amazing series of matches between Michaels and Undertaker, the common element was the hot crowd and the fans who were deeply and personally invested in what happened inside of the squared circle.
There are two types of fans. There are "marks" who believe--even in this era--that professional wrestling is not scripted. There are "smart marks" who know that professional wrestling is an elaborate soap opera. But for those of us in the latter camp, this makes us want to follow the sport even more closely, to learn its history, and to really try to figure out the various angles. Why? Because on some level most smart marks wish they were either professional wrestlers themselves or somehow directly involved in the business.
In American politics the Obamabots, Right-wing mouth breather Tea Party types, the foot soldiers, as well as low information, yet nonetheless very enthusiastic and passionate voters for both the Democrats and the Republicans, are the marks. They are so caught up in the show, the spectacle and its transcendent rhetoric and simple storylines with "good guys," "bad guys," and its accompanying moral clarity, that they do not see that it is all a work, a charade of sorts.
The bloggers, and those others who aspire to be members of the chattering class, are the smart marks. Their level of information, sophistication, and knowledge about the game is much deeper than the average fan. However, because they know more--and have invested time and energy to gain this expertise--the smart marks of American politics are much more invested in the outcome because on a basic and practical level many of them are invested--financially, personally, career wise--in who wins the match.
The activists and real change agents are those who go beyond a "worked shoot." They actually run in to the ring, tell the truth about what is going on backstage to the public, or shake things up by exposing the fraud that professional wrestling (and American politics in general) has become). Sadly, there are few such folks in either game.
6. The professional wrestlers are the human fuel that gets ground up and spat out in order to tell a physical story for the pleasure of the fans, and for the promise of fame and fortune. Without "the talent" there is no professional wrestling. Every part of the card matters. But, those who really "draw," i.e. bring in the big money, are at the the top of ticket. These are the marquee wrestlers--the Rocks, Hogans, Snukas, Austins, Flairs, Undertakers, Harts, Punks, Andres, Jerichos, HHHs, Angles, and Michaels.
Obama and Romney are the two premier professional wrestlers in the game today. If I held the book, the story would go as follows.
Obama is a face, the good guy, who worked really hard to win the belt. He overcame impossible odds and took on a stable of established wrestlers, beating them or otherwise outsmarting them. Obama even enlisted his foes, the Clintons, to his side as enforcers.
Never a physical powerhouse, Obama is a great technical wrestler who was weak on the mic but had flourishes of passion and raw talent that won over the crowd. Now, the face champion is tired and exhausted. He has defended the belt against all comers. He has even compromised his values in order to win a match at the risk of alienating some of his fans. Obama is loved by his people with a passion; he has disappointed and worn out his welcome with some of his most enthusiastic supporters (who are down on his workrate as of late); Barack Obama is Hogan in his later years, or John Cena in the present. Smart marks want Obama to become CM Punk. However, he is apparently incapable of making that turn to a more direct and real persona
Mitt Romney is the perfect heel. He is cold, calculating, sophisticated, indifferent to the little guy, entitled, smug, has money, and can play the victim with expert conviction. Romney will do anything at all to win. He is Ted DiBiase, the million dollar champion (or perhaps even HHH, Buddy Rodgers, or Nick Bockwinkle). Yes, Ric Flair played the rich guy heel role. But, he was too charismatic and likable to hate.
Mitt Romney would be a great villain in any era. Romney's obliviousness to just how offensive his demeanor, speech, and attitude really are to the common man makes him an archetypal villain. There is something about Romney that drives a person to hate him. Romney is so despised that even his allies reluctantly support him as the best of the worst available options.