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.


CNu said...,


nomad said...

So the presidential contest is like wrestling, huh? Now where have I heard that before?

LeoAfricanus said...

This is, as usual, a thoughtful and penetrating analysis, Professor; but I don't believe the wrestling metaphor disqualifies comparisons of politics to boxing. I'm reminded of the Hindu parable, The Five Blind Men and the Elephant: competing analyses aren't by definition mutually exclusive.
I also believe that it isn't a foregone conclusion that, as you say, the Republic will survive regardless of the outcome. Even though I agree with your essential point (to the extent that I understand it correctly) that the real power behind our political process is the same no matter who's in the White House, the thought of, for example, handing Mitt Romney the nuclear launch codes fills me with extreme dread. I don't wish to put too fine a point on this, but one of our collective socio-political pathologies is a belief that we're invulnerable to the forces that have been bringing down empires throughout history. Speaking of inapplicable metaphors, too many of us, too much of the time, compare forces in the Republic to the movement of a pendulum. For some decades now, it has seemed to me much more appropriate to liken the American Experiment to cliff-walking. Rhetorical consistency compels me to acknowledge that pendulum vs. cliff-walking are not mutually exclusive analogies, but Americans really need to understand that the pendulum comparison invites us to believe that our excesses and missteps are self-correcting. They're definitely self-limiting; but self-correcting? Not really.

Black Sage said...

OUCH! That’s quite a penetrative examination and a vivid wrestling-esque laced overview of the 2012 campaign. However, I still like to see an upper-cut, a low-blow or a strike to the face with an open glove from time to time. Good job CDV!

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. Where did you? I mean that seriously. It ain't a novel idea. I just had been thinking about my spin as a ghetto nerd and had to get it out there.

@Leo. Professor? In twenty five years if I am lucky. You are right. We don't know what will happen and our country is so young, and this multicultural experiment of the last 40 years a blip in the radar--I try to get students to see that, they don't want to have their post-racial dreams broken.

Empires fall all of the time. Ours has been moving towards an anti-democratic bent and inverted democracy for some time. If Romney wins the matters become irreversible. Moreover, the two of them are so dangerous that we may have at the least a regional conflict if not WW3.

Ryan's suggestion that he would have had a no fly zone over sovereign country that told us to get out and that he would have shot down a Russian airliner bringing arms to Syria shows how unprepared he and Romney are.

Stakes are high, certainly. As high as some want to make them? I am unsure.

nomad said...

"Where did you? I mean that seriously."
I prolly stole it. Glad to be a useful reminder since you was all off on that boxing metaphor a couple posts ago.

'nomad said...
Wrong metaphor. Not boxing. Rasslin. Kayfabe. Got to get the people behind him for the upcoming matches.'

CNu said...

If Romney wins the matters become irreversible. Moreover, the two of them are so dangerous that we may have at the least a regional conflict if not WW3.

Matters are irreversible no matter who wins - and - we WILL have a regional conflict that goes nuclear - and - we WILL have WW-III.

The Cold War became - and the GWOT always was - a multigenerational WWE event. A presidential term in office is nothing compared to the warsocialist (military industrial congressional complex) driver for developed world economies.

Invisible Man said...

Damn chaunceydevega, Like Chub Rock said "You've Outlifted!

now that's the analysis, I'm paying for! Do you take the Link Card bro?

And see this is what I struggle with. The USS America is sinking and not neither one of them two Saturday Morning Wrestlers is gonna grapple with the systematic problems which are pulling us to go down. And the majority of the public on both sides are of the red and blue are
captured, transfixed and hypnotized by the 24/7 TV Mega Circuses, and still will be until the power goes out when the ship sinks to Davie Jone's Locker.

So wouldn't you almost rather have the total collapse now so we can build something f*cking new that works? As opposed to this slow and agonizing death that will get us there any way except with more lives lost and destroyed over time? I mean we are all so interested in the the romantics of The Zombie Apocalypse- including me. So why not be similarly interested in an Economic Apocalypse that could lead to a massive progressive restructuring of our economy and nation sooner and with a more empowered citizenry as opposed the mutants who will be if we wait another 50 years. This is why every body should vote Green even in the battle ground states

Like Tupac said, Holla If You Hear Me!

Cavoyo said...

The problem with accelerationism (trying to help capitalism fail faster) is that economic failure can benefit the Right more than the Left. Weimar Germany is a great example. Likewise, if America's economy were to go further down the tubes, I have no doubt in my mind that the racist Right would get the most benefit from it. The media will point fingers at Obama and people of color like it always does, and then the white men will pick up their weapons and take what they think is rightfully theirs. Look at the explosion of militia and Minutemen groups after Obama's election. Look at how it took the Tea Party just minutes after Obama's inauguration to form, and then Freedomworks and the Koch Bros funded and advertised them, while the Left sat on its hands for 3 years until some fringe anti-consumerists started OWS.

makheru bradley said...

Great analysis CDV. Where is Paul Bearer when we need him? I believe Ric Flair began his wrestling career in Charlotte, and I can tell you he was definitely hated before he was liked. On October 1 Obama led Romney in the RCP avg. 49.3 to 45.3. Incredibly Romney now leads Obama 47.3 to 46.3. Has he become Ric Flair?

Talking about fights--LOL! Could we see Obama vs the Clintons round two. There is no doubt that Hillary got wind of the pending “toss under the bus” over the security failure in Benghazi so she fired the first blow.

[The State Department said Tuesday it never concluded that the consulate attack in Libya stemmed from protests over an American-made video ridiculing Islam, raising further questions about why the Obama administration used that explanation for more than a week after assailants killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.]

Hillary who still has presidential aspirations was clearly separating herself from the initial narrative of the POTUS.

“Joey the Clown” started the Hillary toss during the VP debate last night: “We weren’t told they wanted more security… We did not know they wanted more security, and by the way, at the time, we were told exactly, we said exactly what the intelligence community told us that they knew.”

Jay Carney finished it today:
[White House press secretary Jay Carney said Biden was referring to President Obama, the White House and himself, as opposed to the State Department and other parts of the government. Biden "was speaking directly for himself and the president," Carney said. "He meant the White House." Said Carney: "In over four hours of testimony ... no one who testified about this matter suggested that requests for additional security were made to the president or the White House. So these are issues appropriately that are handled by security professionals at the State Department."]

Hillary should have known that Barack Obama is the undisputed champion of the bus toss. It’s clearly not the modus operandi of the Clinton’s but will she take one for the team?

Libya which the POTUS said was a “recipe for success” is looking more like a albatross around his neck. I’m expecting to see drones, F-16s, or cruise missiles hitting targets and perhaps SEALs on the ground in Libya any day now. The POTUS is desperate for some dead bodies to showcase revenge and get that albatross from around his neck.

Invisible Man said...

I beg to differ Cavoyo:

The "musical chairs presidency "actually benefits the Plutocratic (-the term Right Wing is far to too broad-) Class. Because, keeping up the appearances of "democracy", "optimism" and "hope" allows them to continue to drain the worlds-including America) resources. The "Banksters" have even more time to to collapse other economic veins in America, like the did mortgages. The Weimar Regime is actually a poor example. The economic collapse did in fact cause a theoretical "socialistic" movement that changed the status quo, just in the wrong direction. But that had to due with the emasculation of Germany during and immediately after WW1 and of course an all white society with jews as an upper middle class minority.

Your view that white men will pick up guns and "take what they think is rightfully theres" is extreme.

And if they do, they will lose. Black,Latinos, Jews Asians, the US government will all put down this white revolution quickly. And, the country would be better for it because racism would be truly exposed as it was in the 1960. And, there was no explosion of militia groups after Obama was elected. But they have been( according to the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks such groups) growing accordingly to the decline of the American economy. And the Minutemen movement has been growing with the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico. White Liberals want to paint every thing bad as reaction to Obama as a Black man. But this is just white liberal Jargon to continue the status quo which actually benefits them more than blacks and poor blacks, middle class whites and poor whites. Remember Obama comes out of the University of Chicago Political Machine

Therefore using a broad brush to paint the Tea Party as single-mindedly racist is part of this. The Tea Party( The New Yorker did a great article on it's origins) began during the First Tarp Bail out under Bush II. It was unemployed white people angry at the banks and rightfully so and pissed at Government and rightfully so- including Allen Greenspan who aided and abetted the thievery of the banks. But all white liberals do is denigrate them as racists. As a radical Black man, I know a few white tea partiers( well all hang out and drink beer after our community policing meetings. And they are not racist. Less educated yes and easy to be swayed, yes. But who's fault is that??? If Obama had actually went after the banks, like he promised, and the lobbyist like he promised he would have gained some of their support. He could have educated them as a populist, yet he became a liberal. These same white tea partiers in Chicago also hated Chicago's Mayor Daley. And what did Obama do? He appointed Daley's top people to position in the white house. Not to mention the Bankers who didn't go to jail, but to the white house to run economic policy. Again white liberals make it seem that Tea partiers are against Obama care, just because it's "socialized medicine". But that's the Koch Brothers. The rank and file Tea Partiers are angry( just like I am) that the Insurance Lobby wrote the bill and are getting rich. While poor people have to be by law insured under piss poor programs designed by the insurance companies. And the left didn't sit on its hands, the left is Occupy Wall Street. Liberals sat on their hands and let Rahm Emmanuel( as Obama's chief of staff)scare them into silence with threats of stripping their Non profit funding. White American liberals are also the very same people who branded OWS as Hippies. White Liberals at WBEZ Public Radio just dropped the Cornel West and Tavis Smiley Program. And we need to start telling the truth, that if the economy crashed they would lose their protected elite status and be broke just like all these blacks and white folks.