This election cycle saw an immense absurdity unmatched by any election in recent memory. We’ve seen Ted Cruz make machine gun bacon. We’ve seen a major news network forget how to signal candidates on stage for a debate. We’ve even seen a meme be designated as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League.
Oh, and Donald Trump is the President-elect of the United States. (It’s still difficult to see that on-screen).
I fear that popular politics has solidified its position as entertainment, a personality contest devoid of policy, nuance or respect for the magnitude of what is actually happening.
The election of our leaders, at both the federal and state/local levels, is a monumentally important event. The right to vote is a serious responsibility that ought to be treated with immense respect. With climate change threatening the future of us and our children, 33,000 people killed by guns each year, voting rights under attack, the cost of education skyrocketing and student loans rising, this is not the time for frivolous entertainment. It is the time for a serious, issues-based discussion of how to best face the rising challenges.
President-elect Trump will appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices. Congress will be making policy about how to best address advances in science and technology. The nation will be grappling with controversy and uncertainty surrounding race relations. Our next administration faces uncertainty on the international stage with a looming Brexit, a deteriorating relationship with Russia, an unstable situation in Syria and a plethora of other known and unknown crises. The next commander-in-chief will have to navigate through new, challenging threats to national security in the forms of lone wolf terrorism and cyber-warfare.
These are not minor challenges. They require serious, logical, empirically-driven thought, as well as bipartisan cooperation on key issues.
However, this past election cycle offered practically everything except policy-driven discussion. It was a circus of political personalities, a rhetorical soup of half-truths, stretches and outright lies, an unending spiral that descended into an abyss of absurdity.
And why is that? It would be easy to blame the media. In a system of profit-driven news, of course they will often resort to clickbait, coverage of gaffes or an unending fascination with trivial (though sometimes legitimate) scandals. It would also be easy to blame the candidates for perpetuating the personality contest and utilizing juicy negative advertisements. However, these factors are only part of the problem. Any description of the entertainment curse of modern politics is incomplete without introspection.
There’s a reason profit-driven media and the votes-desperate candidates propagate the entertaining buzz of the political sphere: it’s because that’s what we, the people, seem to want. There’s a reason Donald Trump received so much coverage early on: he is an entertainer through and through. He used this to his advantage, gaining hours and hours of free coverage, eschewing any need to spend on massive ad buys.
But if we collectively wanted or demanded an issues-based campaign, then it would surely be supplied because media outlets want the traffic and candidates want the votes. If we rewarded these groups for shunning personality in favor of policy, then they would deliver.
The challenge, though, is that this sort of transition is not easy, even for the more politically-involved. The simple fact of the matter is that entertainment is, well, entertaining. I personally admit that I received plenty of positive utility from watching some of the debates, partially because of some of the juicy confrontations and absurdities.
So it is plausible that most of us are part of the problem, that most of us contribute to the political entertainment industry. But perhaps the issue isn’t so black-and-white. There is plenty of social value in mocking the absurdity of the political realm or satirizing the ridiculousness of many of our politicians. Surely there is value in the wit of political cartoons and the satirization from Saturday Night Live.
I am not by any means arguing that John Oliver is unjustified in his hilarious “reporting,” or that Jon Stewart was not a genius in his political satire. However, I would like to argue that there must be some kind of happy in-between; surely we can both enjoy and satirize the political realm while also recognizing the seriousness of policy-making. If in the laughter, we lose sight of the bigger, far more important picture, then we have gone too far in our jest.
So no, political satirization or even political entertainment is not intrinsically bad or normatively wrong. It can even be valuable in encouraging people to take a look at the issues or even get involved politically.
But when the serious conversation is lost, when policy is overshadowed by personality, or when the entertainment blocks the essential discussion— then we have fallen victim to political absurdity.
Note: This article is adapted from an article I wrote for the Duke Chronicle on October 5, 2016 (i.e. pre-election). I thought it might be appropriate to adapt it in light of the election results.