Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Politics and the Structure of Melodrama

Checking the network TV listings, the Republican National Convention is what's on this week.  I won't be watching.

I don't watch informercials.

But I especially don't want to watch this year.  I have insisted from the beginning that this election is between two decent, honorable and competent men who happen to disagree about policy.  You'd never believe it from watching the campaign unfold.  It's gotten uglier and uglier and nastier and nastier, with no end in sight. 

Both parties clearly feel that there's a political advantage to be gained by going negative.  Back in 2000, David Foster Wallace wrote what I still consider one of the most thoughtful and brilliant essays on contemporary politics: "Up Simba!"  Both parties have a solid bloc of voters who will vote for them no matter what.  It's in both parties' interest to make the process so awful that it turns off thoughtful, non-partisan folks, who might otherwise prefer an honest discussion of the issues.  And so what could be a reasonable national conversation about our problems and how to solve them, becomes melodrama.  Bad guys, good guys.  Invented narratives suggesting moral turpitude. On both sides.

Melodrama's a product of the nineteenth century.  The Industrial Revolution crowded farmers into cities, created massive transportation and communication networks, and created the need for popular entertainments for working class audiences.  Melodrama combined comedy and tragedy, action and adventure, fantasy and romance.  The stories were uniformly of heroes, villains, heroines and comic side-kicks, with lots of physical comedy and action sequences, all pumped up with musical underscoring.  It was a diversion, fun and exciting.  Folks ate it up.  You got involved in the action, too.  You booed the villain, cheered the hero.  I remember when I saw Star Wars the first time, first movie I saw after my mission; Darth Vader made his first entrance, and we booed.  Fun stuff. 

Theatre history textbooks say melodrama died out around 1915.  Poppycock.  Melodrama didn't die out, it moved to another medium.  D. W. Griffith is the seminal figure here, a guy who figured out that film could do everything the stage could do, only more excitingly and much much more cheaply.  Instead of traveling by train, town to town, lugging with you all the stage machinery necessary to put a fake train on-stage so you could tie a girl to the railroad tracks, to be rescued at the very last minute, you could film that sequence with a real train, and open in every town in the country on the same day. 

And especially in American melodrama, two villains were particularly popular.  One was the avaricious banker, the moneybags financier, who foreclosed on the family farm or rented you an unlivable tenement apartment. The greedy, smooth-faced (or moustache-twirling) rich guy.  Boo!  Hiss!

Or, the frightening foreigner, the anarchist, the swarthy mysterious stranger in our midst, somehow not really us, not really a true-blue American.  Smooth-talking stranger, quietly insidious, as he undermined The Family and The American Dream.  Jews were particularly popular villains in this vein, but also folks from other ethnicities; gypsies, Eastern Europeans, orientals. 

And so Democrats construct Mitt Romney as the avaricious capitalist.  In one popular narrative, he (and his cronies at Bain Capital--could you imagine a better name for them: Bain=Bane) fired a guy, costing him his health insurance, and his wife died as a result.  Perfect!  He foreclosed on the family farm, and Ma died of a broken heart.  We know that story; it's in our genes, practically. That's why all the pressure from the left to get him to release his tax returns--we know he's rich, we want to know how rich, and how much he's paid in taxes.  Very, and not much, is our guess.  So one of his main calling cards, his success in business, gets used against him.  

And Republicans construct Obama (it's never Barack Obama, or President Obama) as the anarchist foreigner, the untrustworthy Other.  They can't really construct him as the nineteenth century Negro, either as the grinning Steppin Fetchit fool, or the wise old Uncle Tom accommodationist.  They know better than to employ racism that baldly, plus, of course, Obama is stylistically so . . . reasonable, so cool, so unflustered. There's not really a Negro stereotype that fits him.  That's why they've been so busy painting him as a Man of Mystery.  The birther nonsense plays into that.  And that's why the Right wants his school records.  That's why you'll hear ridiculous garbage about his college years: how he doesn't seem to have had friends, and how all his classes were from Marxist radicals.  They're trying to paint this pro-business moderate as some kind of communist.  Or Moslem.  His middle name, after all, is Hussein. 

It's hard to sort through all the nonsense and get to the actual issues.  One game both sides play, for example, is to find some foolish thing someone in either party has said, and use it to suggest that this is the kind of thing Those People actually believe.  We're human beings, we all say dumb things from time to time.  But if you can make hay of it, make it seem like the other party consists of people who aren't just folks you disagree with, but monsters . . .  anything to win, right? 

'Course, something else can happen too.  Something as dangerous and potentially catastrophic as the Paul Ryan budget plan starts to look, well, substantive, a triumph of Policy over public relations.  That's what's really scary--when extremism gets a free pass. There actually are policy issues in this campaign of genuine importance, and while I'm endlessly willing to look at ideas from any source, some ideas really are bad ones.  If that makes me look partisan, so be it--there are good ideas and less good ideas and also some real stinkers.  We should acknowledge that as well.   

Best way to deal with it all, though, is to look, whenever possible, for the funny.  Really, there's nowhere on earth where human petty vanity and foolishness and pride and ambition are so painfully exposed.  The predominant dramatic structure for politics has become melodrama.  But really, as every great writer from Aristophanes to Mark Twain has known, it's the richest possible field for comedy.  Jon Stewart for President, and let's tune out the nonsense. 


  1. No question that political races, especially the ones that are heavily covered, are one of the places that keep comedy shows in business. I think that most people in their mid- thirties either pay no attention to politicians whose rhetoric makes it clear that "we" are notvehicle they want to about.

    "Old people" get a lot of talk time because of Medicare, "poor people" get a lot of talk time because of Medicaid, food stamps and education grants. "Government workers" get talked about because they have jobs, get paid and have a benefits.

    "Corporations" also get talked about because they pay taxes, and there are questions if those should stay. "High Wage Job Creators," (saying that line with a deep voice and a lot of reverb would be best) also occasionally pay taxes, which makes them aligned with those who would like to help the country by not paying taxes,

    All of these groups get lists of time and attention, arguing about those at the very bottom and the very top of the economic scale. What becomes hard to swallow is when either side claims that the people they like talking about, are more important than any other segment of the population. It is insulting that Republicans say that they will stop taxing corporations and "job creators" AND fix the rest of societies ills by dropping all the benefits for poor people and old people. It is also insulting when Democrats seem willing to give up college grant programs and are willing to defund educational (K-12) programs, and not address the fact that those programs are what help the middle class from being part of the "poor people" and helps the "poor people" move up into the middle class.

    I do not think either party is inherently better than any other party. I stay registered as nonaffiliated because both parties have lost the real grassroots outreach. Part of the blame in on the 24 hour news era that we live in. The constant coverage makes it easier to be lazy, doing interviews and only speaking to prepicked audiences, which are often televised, or at least put up on YouTube. Just because a candidate can be lazy doesn't mean that he or she should be lazy. Instead of a few carefully staged debates, why not actually talk to people who don't agree with you. Why not learn to explain what you mean without a TelePrompTer or script?

    Unfortunately, I think the reason that there are no interactions with a candidate that are not staged in some way, is because we have candidates and parties whose thoughts are not coherent enough to stand up to regular conversations. As long as the parties are constantly going on the offensive about the other party, then they aren't selling us THEIR plans and ideas.

  2. As for the nastiness: we've simply adopted an Ottoman system of succession. The election campaign is just a way for the next President to prove he's well-organized and ruthless enough to keep our enemies at bay by bludgeoning his domestic competitors into oblivion.

    Which reminds me: with the media interest in our leaders, America should finally adopt a royal family to pull some attention and give our policymakers some room to actually rule. Since we are a sophisticated 21st century democracy, I think the king or queen should be chosen every four years in a reality TV showdown. Don't you think Sarah Palin would have made an interesting queen? Especially with the added family drama? Or John Edwards--surely we could have given him a term as crown prince of America.

    What do you think? Would presidential campaigns be cleaner if we had some nice, dirty succession struggles over a separate symbolic throne?

  3. James,

    What a fabulous idea! We should let the royal titles have some power, like the ability to tell clothing designers what everyone will and won't be able to wear. If Palin had stayed true to her roots then the stock of quads, hunting and fishing gear, and flannel shirts would currently be almost impossible to find. The Romneys would make great Monarch. We would start dressing all of out kids, children or adults, alike. Parents would wear whatever is a close match but not identical. Costco would be "the only way to shop" and dressage would have as many young hopefuls as gymnastics or swimming.

    Great Call!

    1. I am totally aboard with this idea. Where are the Hapsburgs and Romanoffs when we need them!

    2. How much more fun would it be to have a princess with a full on Baby Watch! Could we just borrow Kate until we have a princess of our own? ;-)