Bread, Circuses and Debates

I have a confession to make: I love the Republican debates, and not for respectable reasons.

I have been glued to the Republican debates; each and every one fills me with the anticipation of 10 Super Bowls. As reflected by the participation in our live-tweeting parties and each episodes subsequent ratings, undoubtedly many share my enthrallment with the GOP’s drama as it unfolded on stage.

The Democratic debates? Not so much. It doesn’t help that the Democratic Party has purposefully set their debates for days when few will watch them, but what has really encumbered any fervent interest in them has more to do with the human dynamics on stage. While the Republican Party fights for its ideological soul, The Sanders/Clinton debates rarely take on the same existential charm.

Perhaps more troubling is the fact that Democratic debates have been rather substantive. Writing for CNN, Julian Zelizer argued:

The contrast between the Democratic debate in Las Vegas and the first two times the Republican candidates met was striking. Those debates frequently looked like a political version of reality television. Donald Trump thrived in large part because of the overall quality of the discussions. “Unless the Democrats can talk one of the Kardashians into running,” joked CNN commentator Paul Begala, “don’t expect the Democrats’ ratings to approach the Republicans.”

While each Democrat in Las Vegas demonstrated a number of vulnerabilities as well as strengths — and there were a few moments when they delivered some zingy one-liners — what was most notable about the evening was the image that they conveyed about their party: this is a party that is focused on governance.

The Kansas City Star echoed similar sentiments:

That there’s even a discussion about health care initiatives among the Democrats is far better than the GOP scrum over the issue, which one can boil down to the tired and simplistic “repeal and replace.”

Americans would benefit greatly if candidates would discuss their real differences on serious issues facing the country.

The juvenile posturing among the gaggle of Republican candidates may be great for TV ratings. But it’s not a good way to help people select someone who might be the next president of the United States.

The Democratic Debates have been focused and concentrated, and thus, generally boring and uninteresting. I say that with a great deal of hesitance. I studied politics and worked in the field; I am supposed to be above the siren calls of clownish buffoons and charlatans prone to sensational derogatory tactics. Yet, I tune in to Republican debates in anticipation of more reality-show antics. There is a real philosophical divide playing out on stage, but I doubt the experience would be as pleasurable without its theatrical attributes. Our desire for bread and circuses now extends beyond the realm of sports ball and tabloids, but to our politics and the bearing of the state. Even sadder, I recognize that I am not above this mandate for politics to be entertaining. Evidently, the pulse of America beats in tandem with my own.

Augustus rightfully recognized that the masses could be kept orderly and content when their basic needs for sustenance and entertainment were met. The social contract between the Roman state and its plebeians was one advantageous to both; the levers of government endured in the hands of the educated elite while the common man enjoyed their spectacles. One of the most successful empires in history was built on this foundation.

What Augustus did not foresee was the state itself becoming the spectacle, with its politics necessitating a mirroring of the circuses the masses had become accustomed to. The Republican front-runner has been compared to other notable Italians, but his resilience is built on the plebeian’s need for entertainment rather than any sociopolitical vision. He is the manifestation of the circus, given life by a society yearning for theater in all things and at all times.

Imaginably, our empire may fall with a court jester being elevated to the heights of power, rather than barbarian hordes hammering at its gates.

(Image: Roman Mosaic from the Great Palace of Constantinople) 


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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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25 thoughts on “Bread, Circuses and Debates

  1. The Republicans have been running on anti-intellectualism and sneers against effete coastal liberals that read books for so long that they probably are unable to have a meaningful debate. The basic Republican ideology that government solutions never work, even though this is honored more in breach than in practice, does not help because what does that leave their debate. The Republican party line is market economics, tax cuts, tough on security, and Protestant morality on social issues. If anything Trump’s European style nationalist populism is adding ideological variety into the debates.

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    • I agree on your point about Trump adding variety by introducing European right-wing principles into the debate, but the showman element feels much different than the likes of Nigel Farage or Victor Orban. Which gets me back to my central question: would the rise of Trump had occurred had he not been an entertainer?

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  2. I think Lee has it right. The GOP is reaping what they have sown for decades.

    Interestingly the big issue (more for the GOP) is that there is a huge disconnect between large segments of the bases and the elites. The elites live in a sphere where globalization is good and entitlement reform is popular because they all have so much money and don’t need Medicare and social security. Now the people say no.

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    • @saul-degraw “The elites live in a sphere where globalization is good and entitlement reform is popular…”

      It also demonstrates why the elites are much more supportive of mass migration. They reap the benefits of the macro advantages produced by immigration but do not live with the downside of it (lower trust communities, a drain on public schools). They simple are disconnected from those problems and don’t get what it has angered many in poorer communities.

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  3. I’m curious to know if you watched last night’s debate and if so, what you thought of it — especially in light of this post.

    I have to say, I thought it veered past “reality show entertainment” and directly into watching a train wreck. I found it painful to watch.

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    • I didn’t even know they had a debate until the last 30 minutes. I caught the closing remarks and post-debate pundits. From what I heard, it was a mess of epic proportions. I will hopefully watch it on Youtube today.

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    • I didn’t see the beginning in real time – where Trump called out the Bush admin for not keeping us safe on 9/11 and lying us into a disastrous war (points Trump!) and Jeb!’s lame “stop criticizing my family” whine-reply (downvote for Jeb!) – but over the last 45 minutes or so I thought Rubio maintained composure and scored some direct hits on Cruzer; Cruz looked floundery; Carson looked asleep; Kasich looked like a grumpy Grandpa; and Trump thrashed his way to another Victory by scorching the GOP earth.

      He has to destroy the party in order to save it!! Or something. And he’s doing his best to destroy it, seems to me. (Speaking heresies like that on national TV??!!? How DARE he…)

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      • I don’t know how many undecideds he picked up with that answer but it was more than none at all. I don’t know how many Democrats he picked up with that answer but it was more than none at all.

        If he gets the nomination, the only person who might be able to beat him is Bernie.

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        • Agreed. He also called out Cruzer for basically institutionalized lying during this campaign – lying about Carson, lying about Trump – which I think scored pretty well with that same fedupwithpoliticsasusual crowd. Rubio also called out Cruzer for lying about his immigration policies, which, if he hits it again, might stick since immigration is the (apparently!!!) the number one issue for voters this primary. (And Cruz is all sorts of slimey on immigration policy…)

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      • Apart from being true (!!!), what Trump achieved was placing the Conservative Mythology directly against reality. The Myth is that Bush Kept Us Safe, and that 9/11 was caused by Clinton, that OMightyISIS was caused by Obama, and that invading Iraq was The Right Thing To Do. It was interesting seeing all the other combatants squirm around trying to frantically replace those pieces when the facade came crashing down.

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        • @don-zeko

          And it addition, when Jeb defended his brother ? he was roundly cheered for it while the crowed booed Trumps comments. If I had any respect left for the common Republican it died this morning when I heard the reports on the radio. Let them burn.

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            • Heh. “The dude’s so NOT-conservative he’ll be gone by last fall.”

              If the polling on who won is any indication, two different polls had Rubio as the winner, Trump 2nd, and Jeb/ Cruzer distant third/fourths.

              Rubio was really good last night (the part I watched): sharp, clear, incisive, he even got in a few spontaneous non-scripted jabs that landed.

              But like you said up thread, Trump definitely scored some points with the anti-Iraq comments, and since he’s not parlaying for establishment support it’d be hard to tell how much those comments helped/hurt his chances.

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              • I have seen a couple of Conservative types argue, seriously, that Trump didn’t really oppose the Iraq War in 2003.

                He didn’t oppose it until 2004.

                They point out how Trump only wrote his opposition down in 2004.

                NOT 2003.

                This is one of those attacks that won’t change the hearts/minds of the people on the fence *AND* has the weird effect of telling people that it would have been good to have opposed the Iraq War, like Trump belatedly did, before Trump belatedly did.

                It’s monumentally stupid.

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                  • Trump’s lies are lies that bring a spotlight on a truth that is fairly close to his lie.

                    They are *HIGHLIGHTING* that he opposed Iraq in 2004.

                    And in arguing that he didn’t oppose it until 2004, they’re making his point that opposing the war during Dubya’s first term was smarter than all of the idiots on the stage plus Hillary.

                    Trump is playing these guys like a fiddle. It’s downright uncanny.

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          • I guess it’s possible that the crowd wasn’t representative; it did seem like Rubio in particular was very successful at packing the hall with his supporters. But still, I’ve assumed for years that anybody who believes those (totally true) things Trump said was bound to get run out of the party on a rail. If Trump doesn’t crash and burn for telling those particular heretical truths, my conception of the Republican Party is very badly wrong.

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          • Jeb’s comment was one of the most laughable things I’ve heard in a political debate. “Don’t go after my family” when you family are private citizens who have only been drawn into political life by your campaign? Fine and justified. “Don’t go after my family” when your family are two ex-presidents? Nonsensical.

            (Also, I now have the #1 question I would ask Jeb if I got the chance: “You said ‘My dad is the greatest man alive in my mind.’ If elected, would you emulate your dad in ending all US funding to Israel until they cease settlement-building? If not, why not?”

            That’s not to say I think that admiring someone requires you to emulate him in all respects. But it would make Jeb give an answer that didn’t involve throwing terms like “anti-Semite” or “un-American” or “pro-terrorist” at anyone who wanted to hold Israel to account for its illegal and immoral actions – because any such insults would be implicity directed as his father. And it would make the Republican grapple just a little bit with how far they’ve moved on that issue since the 1980s.)

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  4. Malarkey.
    (In long: the Democrats know bread and circuses better than the Republicans know bread and circuses, and they make better entertainment too. If their current debates are boring, that’s honestly intentional. Netroots Nation screens candidates for office, and I’m sure that their debates and Q&As are really dreadfully boring too. Democrats are much better at nitty gritty groundgame things. Bets on the new Acorn?)

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