I was watching The Daily Show on Hulu recently, catching up, and saw the segment above where Jon Stewart expertly documents yet another Democrat snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Stewart seems outraged, as well as genuinely surprised, which he might not be if he had read the excellent Greenwald piece on the Democratic party and its strategy of rotating villains. However, when I watched this play out in video clips for the umpteenth time, it suddenly occurred to me (and I’m ashamed it hadn’t until now):
The Democratic Party is a Pro-Wrestling Federation.
Now, hear me out. Professional Wrestling is often misunderstood as being a ‘fake sport’, when in reality it’s a long running soap opera with most of the parts played by professional stuntmen. As such, it is an essentially static form of entertainment, where the same Manichean, Good vs. Evil, black and white struggle plays out, week after week, year after year. This is essential; delivering a consistent product brings in the advertisers (in both politics and wrestling, this means large corporations), who are buying a known quantity.
At the same time, in order to keep its audience, wrestling has to present the illusion of dynamism, or ‘change’ in the present parlance. Nobody wants to watch the exact same story all the time. So wrestling takes this static product and dresses it up in the paegentry of conflict, with most actors playing a rotating series of Good or Evil roles; in Wrestling terms, most wrestlers alternate between heroes (Faces) and villains (Heels).
So last week, what we saw with Senator Rockefeller, blatantly flip-flopping on his passionately stated (staged) support of the Public Option by refusing to pass it using reconciliation, that wasn’t a betrayal of the voters (audience), or of his principles; it was what is known to Wrestling fans as a ‘Face Heel Turn‘.
The only thing missing was a folding chair to the back of the Public Option’s skull.
Likewise, when Senator Lieberman came out as the (apparrently self-designated) front-man on repealing DADT, he was executing a perfect ‘Heel Face Turn’. Now he’s a Face, at least on this issue, and will fill that role. (Unfortunately for Joementum, he’s a natural Heel, and is particularly unconvincing in the Face role, but hey, you go to pay per view (election years) with the cast you have, not the cast you might want or wish to have)
As with all models, the Democratic Party as WWE model, to be useful, should allow us to make some predictions about the real world:
The Powerless Chairman (or President)
(I’ll betray my teenage’d self’s preference for the WWF with this passage, if any wrestling fans read this)
In Wrestling as in the Democratic Party, someone has to be the Boss. In both cases, the Boss is an odd figure: extremely powerful, but almost entirely unable to get results. For some reason, despite the audience (voters) being constantly reminded of the importance, power and prestige of the Boss figure, his will rarely translates into reality. Sometimes the Boss (Vince McMahon for a handy example) plays a Heel, sometimes a Face, but in either case, oddly, their power is dependent on the ‘unpredictable’ actions of their employees. A number of reasons could be posited, ranging from populist appeals (hah, look at the rich man losing again), to structural (if the Boss just fired a wrestler he didn’t like, it would endanger the suspension of disbelief).
As we’ve seen over the last year, this is no less true in the Democratic Party than in the WWE. President Obama, despite having an enormous bully pulpit, and control over both chambers of Congress, was strangely paralyzed all year. One Heel after another after another took their turn dashing his agenda; Baucus, Nelson, Lieberman, Reid, now figures like Rockefeller are getting their star turn as heels. As in wrestling, where it never occurs to Vince McMahon that, no, he doesn’t have to get in the ring with a huge steroidal hulk, President Obama seems to have never considered bringing the weight of the DNC down on a single solitary bad actor. Nor has he used the President’s natural bully pulpit, or the overwhelming level of public support for, say, the Public Option, to get what he supposedly wanted.
Prediction: More of the same will follow, on every major issue. We should be treated to a regular calvacade of Face Heel Turns over the coming year, as one lone Democrat after another after another plays spoiler to our Designated Hero and his agenda. Likewise, no actual price will be paid by any of these Heels. If there are changes, they’ll be in areas that are unthreatening to the sponsors and thus don’t affect the corporate cash flow (even more important in our post-Citizens United world). So, a repeal of DADT is entirely possible (why should GE care?), but you might as well give up now on meaningful climate reform. Obama’s stated agenda is merely the broad outline for a script of regular Face Heel Turns.
The Ringside Commentators
Wrestling just wouldn’t be the same without its commentary. From the side of the ring, much like in real sports, you get live expert analysis, background information and speculation, which helps to fill in any gaps in the viewer’s (voter’s) knowledge of the storyline, as well as tell people who to root for and who to root against generally.
Of course, it’s all ultimately fake. The commentators are in on it, their ‘surprise’ at shocking plot twists faked, and they can be relied upon not to call attention to anything that might undermine the show.
Democratic politics is precisely the same. This handily explains why groups like NARAL and Parenthood fail to mobilize their members against actual threats to choice, or why liberal economic groups fail to campaign against the excesses of Geithner’s buddies on Wall Street. That’s not in the script! Bart Stupak was slated for his star turn as a Heel ruining the House bill, and Geitner’s been designated as a Face in the banking crisis (another questionable bit of casting). The ringside guys aren’t going to say anything against the narrative, anymore than their wrestling counterparts would tell you that one of the wrestlers just palmed a razor blade so he could make a tiny cut in his forehead to get some real blood. It’s not going to happen.
Prediction: More of the same. Expect Heels turned Faces like Joe Lieberman to be praised from the rooftops by members of the Veal Pen for their sudden good will, while Heels are condemned in ways precisely calibrated to have no impact on their reelection prospects or power.
The Republicans Are On Another Network
If the Democrats are a wrestling federation, then who are the Republicans? Well, they are too; they’re just a less popular troupe, aimed at a different audience, on another network.
They still follow the same formula, but they’re geared toward different viewers. Their Faces might resemble our Heels, in terms of the way they act, but the party works much the same way. Republican voters elect their Faces to drown government in the bathtub, put gays back in the closet, what have you, only to see them pull Face Heel Turns at crunch time, enacting their real priorities like big corporate tax cuts. Then they can run against each other, with noble arch-conservative Faces forcing the ‘moderate’ Heels to see the light in time for an election, lather, rinse, repeat. You get the idea.
Prediction: If the Democratic spectacle keeps losing ratings, the Republican brand might attract enough viewers to make crossover specials between the two groups (bipartisanship) more workable. In that case, both sides will play the centrists in their own party as Heels who are sadly forcing them to compromise on, well, pretty much exactly the most lucrative middle ground for their shared pool of sponsors. This lets them build up Faces in their own parties with what they think is an appearance of credibility.
My Conclusion: Unless the Democratic Wrestling Federation wants to see a lot of viewers jump ship to their rival, they’d better realize they have a serious surplus of Heels and not enough Faces. There’s no drama if the ‘good guys’ always lose.
Cross-posted from my personal blog which is of little interest to anyone.