The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy and the Politics of Spectacle


(Ethan Corey)– I often feel like contemporary politics are specifically designed to make me angry. Even good news, like the Supreme Court’s ‘evolution’ on LGBTQ rights, is almost always tempered by infuriating news like the same court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively neutralized the Voting Rights Act, threatening the enfranchisement of millions of people of color in areas with a history of racial discrimination. Yet, emotional reactions like this are unproductive and ultimately disempowering; what really matters is not whether the news is good or bad on a day-to-day basis but rather what we can do to change it.

The problem with emotions in politics is that they are fundamentally passive and reactive; they represent a surrender of political agency and reduce the citizen to a mere spectator in the political arena. The Roman Coliseum is an apt metaphor for emotional politics. The crowd could not determine the outcome of the gladiators’ battle; they could only express their support for or dissatisfaction with the result of the fight. When politics becomes a spectacle the people lose their ability to meaningfully exercise power. Instead, they are pushed to the sidelines as talking heads duke it out on CNN; politics begins to resemble a football game; popular sovereignty decays into mere public opinion.

The way the media covers politics, unfortunately, tends to promote this passive, emotional outlook. Presidents, senators, congresspersons, Supreme Court justices, and governors are the protagonists of the political narrative; they make the important decisions, determine the course of the nation in backroom negotiations, and fight rhetorical and ideological battles on Sunday morning talk shows and in legislative showdowns. It’s not the American people who threaten the creditworthiness of the country every time the debt limit needs to be raised; it’s not the American people who plunge the country into meaningless and costly wars; and it’s not the American people who vote to exempt the rich from paying their fair share in taxes. The people as a whole only get to express their feelings through Gallup polls and periodic elections; ultimately, however, the real power is in the hands of the elite. When a reporter asks a politician about a political issue, the question is always “What will you do about this?” When the same reporter asks an average citizen, the question instead is “How do you feel about this?” Politicians act; citizens react.

Take, for instance, Tex Sen. Wendy Davis’s astounding filibuster of SB 5 (now HB 2), a draconian and probably unconstitutional anti-abortion bill, which, if passed, would have banned abortions after the 20th week of a pregnancy, dramatically reducing Texas women’s access to safe abortion services. Even though the overwhelming majority of Texans opposed the bill, and even though the bill would have drastic consequences for the average Texan woman, in the last resort, Texan women had to rely on the good will and superhuman efforts of a single politician to protect their rights. Of course, equally important in the fight were the ‘citizen’ filibusters organized in the days before Sen. Davis’s speech that made Sen. Davis’s heroism possible in the first place, and this week, in the face of renewed efforts by Gov. Perry to ram the bill through the state legislature, massive rallies have helped  to keep hopes alive for Texas women.

Unfortunately, the media coverage of the debate has only reinforced the spectacular nature of the Texas abortion showdown. The bulk of articles and blog posts written about the issue have focused on Sen. Davis’s filibuster, her personal history, and even her shoes! While Sen. Davis’s filibuster was politically courageous and commendable, the real story is the assault on women’s rights that she is fighting against, but the media doesn’t seem to have received the message. In fact, when I googled the bill to find more info for this post, almost all of the results I found were articles about the machinations of the state legislature and Sen. Davis’s filibuster; almost none of them actually discussed the content of the bill or its implications for Texas women.

The same phenomenon is taking place with the Edward Snowden leaks. Snowden revealed massive abuses of government power, from illegal domestic surveillance to spying on our European allies to the kangaroo justice of the FISA courts that were created to protect Americans’ privacy, but the media has focused more on Snowden’s personal life, from his exotic dancer girlfriend to his quest for political asylum, than on the implications of his leaks. Snowden’s personal life, of course, is completely irrelevant to the content of his leaks and has no bearing on whether or not the government violated the law or not. Even more disturbing, some in the media have actually called for the prosecution of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who facilitated the leaks, as an attempt to further discredit the source of the information. The media has turned the leaks into a spectacle, taking away much of their potential impact and distracting the public from the pressing issues at hand.

As my examples may have suggested, the dominant narrative of politics as spectacle largely reflects a formal reality about our political system. The people have very little power to decide the issues of the day, and the massive injections of corporate money into elections means that politicians have very little incentive to care what we think. Nevertheless, the visceral, emotional reactions that we have to politics are what define us as spectators. When divorced from political action, even an outraged response to something like the recent NSA domestic surveillance leaks constitutes a fundamental acceptance of one’s exclusion from political power; by simply reacting, one plays the role given to them by the politics of spectacle.

Society and government are human institutions—in other words, they are nothing more than a set of relations between people: politicians and voters, employers and employees, teachers and students. Such relationships are, at the root level, what politics is all about, and because they are human creations, they are subject to be changed by humans. Contemporary politics can only remain a spectacle if we keep watching. If we refuse to accept our role as mere spectators and demand to become active participants in the process itself, we can create real change and reclaim politics and government from the elite.

Concretely, this means that active citizens should organize democratic institutions from the ground up to enact their will on a local, national, and even global scale. This doesn’t mean we should all devote our lives to activism, but in order to create meaningful change, we all have to put some skin in the game. If the federal government won’t make sure that voting regulations and polling times/locations don’t discriminate against voters of color, then we should organize watchdog groups to do it ourselves. If reactionary state governments try to restrict women’s access to safe abortion services, then we should raise funds to build more clinics and work to provide transportation for women who live far away from healthcare services. It’s time to stop feeling powerless and start taking power.