Presidential politics in the United States have long been a repository, and a vehicle, for the people’s aspirations towards a better life and a better country. Quite apart from the mechanics of elections and the actuarial plausibility of various contenders, any number of wild presidential dreams can be found—guarded, nurtured, cherished—among the citizenry. All across America, multitudes of ordinary civic-minded people sit at home reading, chatting, watching C-SPAN (especially C-SPAN); amid the morass of stupidity and pettiness that characterizes our public life, these disenchanted Americans, desperate for a tonic to cure their democracy blues, allow themselves to daydream: “If only _________ were president, we just might have a chance!”
The corollary to such furtive bursts of optimism, naturally, would be that if we continue to ratify, four years at a time, different versions of business-as-usual, then America is finished. For the conscientious voter, then, it becomes a serious question: how much longer do we have before it’s too late? Does the future depend, in an absolute way, on the outcome of the next election—that is to say, would the wrong choice mean that the next election would also be the last one?
In the universe of America’s political journalism, questions like these—altogether justified and urgent in light of present circumstances—matter not at all. Our media’s approach to the democratic process is indistinguishable from the kind of speculation and analysis one finds on ESPN. This actually makes perfect sense, in that the well-appointed elites who cover politics have a stake in the outcome of elections only in the sense that Dick Vitale has a stake in the outcome of the NCAA tournament: they might harbor passions for this or that contender, but whatever happens, the only certainty is that come next March (or November, as it were) they will still be well-payed and comfortable in their court-side seat.
This athletic analogy can be fruitfully extended. With elections in general, and the presidency especially, the rules for deciding who makes the playoffs are most important limiting factor. In the world of sports, different arrangements allow for varying measures of “democratic possibility”. At one extreme, the NCAA basketball tournament makes room for sixty-six teams. The resulting contest, where the mighty fall with delightful frequency and the lowly win glory, is thrilling precisely because of this “egalitarian” openness.
Contrast the spontaneity of March Madness with the tamer and more exclusive playoffs in the major professional leagues. The leagues are divided up regionally, and records in the regular season tabulated like the delegates in party primaries. Admission to the playoffs rests on strict mathematics, which are taken as a fair abstraction of the truth of matters on the field of play. (Elections are taken to express the “will of the people” rather in the sense that the “ball don’t lie”—the only caveat being “…except when it do”) Interestingly, most leagues have provided for a “wild-card” playoff bid, which in a fashion concedes that chance must be allowed a foot in the door.
Lastly, consider the process used, until very recently, to determine which two teams would compete for the NCAA Football championship. Simply put, an obscure and unaccountable computer algorithm was applied to the raw data of the college football season, and the machine would render a judgment. In parallel, an arbitrarily chosen assortment of college-football bigshots would vote for their own choices of the best two teams.
The computer and human results were then mashed together in some unfathomable way to produce the pair of teams for the championship game. The result, which frequently offended the football-following public, was rightly seen as an outrage against democratic sensibilities; in the most infamous instances of decisions widely at variance with popular opinion, the ensuing scandals had something of the flavor of popular uproar over the 2000 election.
Having surveyed the range of playoff procedures in the world of sports, I expect the reader will readily see the significance of the analogy with electoral politics. The field of American politics is not nearly so vibrant as that of NCAA basketball—go ahead, try to come up with 64 remotely plausible presidential candidates…32?…16?….8?….4?….and you get the picture.
Insofar as the competitive logic of sport obtains in presidential politics, we find it most readily in the formalized, televised debate. The beau-ideal for such contests, the Lincoln-Douglass debates, is far enough in the past to serve as an empty signifier for an admirable, if utterly unattainable, democratic ideal. The “debates” held today are thoroughly sterilized by minute procedural rules, and circumscribed by the artificial requirement of concision; as Noam Chomsky wisely pointed out, concision imposes a marvelous ideological discipline while appearing to be neutral, since 90 seconds is just enough to parrot conventional pieties, but hardly enough time to get across an unconventional point.
As if the heavy regulation of debate conduct were not enough, participation in the debates for both the primaries and the general election is jealously guarded by the political parties, separately as well as in concert. In the primary phase, where ideological diversity is at least nominally encouraged, this is harder to pull off—you have to let the Ron Pauls and the Mike Gravells the chance, however fleeting, to speak. However, in this case the cunning of reason is on the side of the status quo. As if animated by the spirit of conformity herself, the candidates team up in felicitous combinations to enforce the party line. The result is an antipathy toward ideologically proscribed opinions as powerful and effective as any Stalinist central committee.
The systematic suppression and frustration of democratic aspirations, election after election, in the interest of a monolithic bipartisan consensus, has taken its toll, and left us where we now find ourselves as a nation. We have streamlined the democratic process in such a way that the element of chance has been seemingly banished; the hopes of citizens for anything better than the choice between “inevitable” centrisms have been consigned to the realm of wistful fantasy. In short, we have all but abolished democracy, because true democracy is fun, and politics these days sure ain’t fun.
Hunter S. Thompson was perhaps the first to equate “the death of fun” in America with a more profound and pervasive tendency of national decline (variously known as “the grim slide”, “the downward spiral of dumbness”, and other vivid Thompsonian monikers). Thompson knew a thing or two about elections, having masterfully covered the saga of 1972 in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. He also knew something about sports. In much of his best work, the line between politics and sport begins to blur and melt away. In Campaign Trail 72 the long and hard-fought Democratic primary race is punctuated throughout by Thompson’s successful gambling, in the manner of sports, on the outcomes with other members of the press. And along the way, he manages to score an exclusive audience with Richard Nixon in the back of a limousine, on condition that the only subject for discussion would be football.
Any reader of Thompson’s election coverage will likely appreciate how that older world of electoral politics, suffused with whimsy, chaos, and popular enthusiasm, is so completely different and alien to our own. Can you imagine the journalists of today wagering hard money (for more plentiful, in their case, than for their predecessors) gambling on a presidential election? At this point, there isn’t much to bet for.
On the other hand, the very windlessness and boringness of the 2016 contest so far might just be a spell of calm before a glorious storm of surprises. No one’s counting, much less betting, on a savior candidate to emerge from obscurity to win the White House and solve all our problems—we’ve spent the past six years watching how that turns out. But a more modest hope can, indeed must, be entertained. Namely, that the fates will conspire, over and against the vacuums of imagination, to make democracy fun again. Place your bets.
Dawson Gage is a writer living in Wilmington, North Carolina.