In Rome, the spectacle of gladiators fighting in the great Colosseum was a popular outlet for plebeian energy, allowing the masses to give full-throated expression to their frustration and anger by projecting it into the arena. In between bouts they would throw a few Christians to the lions, to keep the crowd’s bloodlust at the level of full-blown hysteria, but the main events were gladiatorial contests, whose stars had their rabid partisans and equally rabid detractors: when one fell, and was unable to rise, the crowd gave vent to its prejudices and moods by signifying either thumbs up or down. The final decision, however, was left to the Emperor, whose thumb was on everyone’s throat.
As the old Republic lost its Hellenic heritage and degenerated into a vast and corrupt semi-Oriental despotism, the spectacle came to occupy a central place in Roman politics. One of the crazier Roman emperors, Commodus, entered the arena himself, parading around the Colosseum dressed in lion skins and carrying a club. Naturally, he invariably beat his unfortunate opponent. Who, after all, would dare beat the emperor? Commodus was eventually poisoned and then strangled by members of the imperial household. Popular opinion was reflected in the decision of the Senate to declare the dead emperor a public enemy, not to mention the Latin derivation of the word commode.
Yet the death of this intolerable tyrant and madman didn’t stop or even delay Rome’s long slide into decadence: his decade of misrule was followed by an interregnum of chaos and confusion, as one overly ambitious Roman officer after another claimed the throne. By that time, the political culture of Roman society had been thoroughly poisoned by the bacillus of imperialism and the politics of celebrity. A small agrarian republic of freemen had, in the historical blink of an eye, expanded to encompass a great deal of the civilized world: the results were disastrous. The Senate was relegated to an advisory role, as world-conquering Caesars erected statues to their greatness, and minted coins stamped with their own image. These coins were often debased in order to finance their constant wars, as well as public spectacles to keep the plebs quiescent.
Commodus was popular for most of his ten year rule due to his generosity with the public purse, forever memorialized on coins minted during his reign, and his Herculean persona delighted the plebs. Commodus understood the politics of celebrity, and played the game well until he went overboard — as madmen are wont to do — and invited his own demise.
In our own era, the politics of celebrity are played on a vaster scale, with all the magnifying effects of modern communications technology. Think of the American political landscape as one vast electronic Colosseum, where politician-gladiators battle it out to the roar of the crowd, and it’s thumbs down on politically incorrect dissenters — who are regularly thrown to the lions in order to appease the savage appetite of the mob.
From an agrarian republic of freemen to a world-encompassing empire in the blink of an historical eye — this is the American story recounted in a phrase, the birth narrative of the New Rome. Once upon a time our politics were about ideology: that is, political campaigns revolved around issues. “Free silver,” abolitionism, the tariff, the trusts, imperialism — these were the central concerns of Americans who had not yet been corrupted by the new political culture introduced by the advent of television and the accelerated growth of the art of propaganda, both political and commercial.
The event that inaugurated the politics of celebrity, and assured its eventual triumph over the old issue-oriented politics, was no doubt the famous televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, in which the former came across as unshaved and unlikable, and Kennedy’s natural star power catapulted him into the White House. With Kennedy’s victory, the White House began to take on the air of a royal court, with not only the King on this throne but the Queen by his side: for the first time the First Lady became a glamorous accouterment of the presidency, with ladies from coast to coast wearing Jackie’s famous “pillbox” hat and copying her sleek, sophisticated style. The President himself was glamorized and objectified, along with the whole Kennedy clan. America’s pining for a royal family, which could never have been satisfied by the Nixons, found fulfillment in Kennedy’s “Camelot.”
This sea change in the political culture, it’s important to note, occurred at the height of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union, and coincided with the rapid expansion of American power abroad. Kennedy had gotten into office due in part to his outflanking of the Republicans on the “defense” issue: he declared that under the Republicans we had allowed a “missile gap” to open up between us and the Soviets, who were in reality years behind us in terms in terms of both quantity and quality. Although popular mythology presents him as hostile to the War Party, which was agitating to expand the Vietnam war, this was the American President who declared we must “pay any price, bear any burden” in order to spread “freedom” around the world. Caesar couldn’t have said it better.
The policy of imperialism plays a key role in writing the personal narrative of the ruler: wars of aggression and serial “regime-change” are seen as exhibiting his admirable personal qualities of strength and decisiveness. “Shock and awe” over Iraq was aimed just as much at impressing the American people as inducing the Iraqis to haul up the white flag of surrender.
The evolution of the President as a larger-than-life personality has its Roman precedents. After the modesty of the early Caesars gave way to open megalomania, Roman emperors routinely elevated themselves to the divine pantheon of the gods, and deified their relatives and mistresses. In our age, this deification process has been replaced by the elevation of political figures to the pantheon of celebrities. American politics, having devolved into almost pure entertainment, has become a battle of conflicting narratives — conflicting personal narratives, in which the voters turn thumbs up or down and the arena resounds with their judgment. Will you vote for Richie Rich, the Competent Manager, or the Community Organizer with a Heart of Gold?
The convergence of the two parties, ideologically, has sped up this evolution of our politics in the direction of pure spectacle. Yes, I know we’re supposed to believe the real problem is rampant “polarization,” but this isn’t an ideological phenomenon so much as it is a cultural divide. In terms of actual policy, the real differences between Team Red and Team Blue are negligible except when it comes to hot button social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
George W. Bush’s electoral success can be attributed to many factors, no doubt, especially the flaws of his Democratic opponents. Not to be overlooked, however, is his much-touted appeal as the candidate you’d most like to have a beer with — a popular meme at the time, and one that, I fear, fully explains the reason for the eight years of absolute misery he put us through.
In the age of empire, the politics of celebrity are ubiquitous. Which is why a politician like Ron Paul, for example, could never make it to the White House: he’s the exact opposite of a movie star. He is, instead, a character actor in the drama — the spectacle — of American politics, the Cranky Old Uncle not to be taken seriously. It’s also the reason why an empty vessel like Mitt Romney can capture the presidential nomination of a major party: he, after all, looks the part, and in a thoroughly decadent culture such as ours, where surface appearances are signifiers of power and prestige, a good hairdo is worth far more than the brain it adorns.
Taking all this into consideration, then, we can project the winner of the 2012 election before a single vote is even cast. Yeah, sure, Romney looks the part — but can he sing? Like this?