From screaming and threats at town council meetings to storming the Capitol building, the current practice of American democracy seems more like a contest of winner-take-all than the spirit of U pluribus Unum.
While there is no one easy answer to explain how our culture got to this point, a good part of it may be shaped by our modes of entertainment.
Recently in the online publication The Conversation, two sports communication researchers who specialize in examining “the vast and powerful influence of identity on attitudes and behavior” investigated the parallels between political identity and sport fandom.
One of the findings by Michael Devlin of Texas State University and Natalie Brown Devlin of the University of Texas at Austin was that “during Donald Trump’s presidency, the American electorate became more divided and partisan, with research suggesting that the ongoing division is less about policy and more about labels like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal.’”
Essentially, they say, voters increasingly saw themselves in one of two camps — a “red team” and a “blue team,” each with a faction of hard-core members
“The dangerous extent of this devotion was on display when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, convinced that the election had been stolen despite no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud,” they note.
Referring to this team mindset as “political fandom,” the writers say while some individuals casually enjoy games simply while wearing their team’s shirt, “others ardently support and uproariously react to every play while cloaked in elaborate, outlandish outfits.”
The writers say this type of fandom goes beyond the outfits and actually becomes a core component of fan’s identity. It becomes a sense of being characterized by a “deeper emotional attachment in which fans feel psychologically connected to their favorite team.”
They are more likely to express their love of their team on social media, attend events, and consume more team-related media. “They’ll even buy team-related products when they don’t particularly like the product itself. For the fan, it’s all about demonstrating allegiance.”
And while being a fan and belonging to a group can be beneficial to someone’s well-being, the authors say there can be a darker side to this kind of devoted fandom — particularly when a favorite team loses.
“For highly identified fans,” say the authors, “a win feels like a personal victory” and fans use the words like “us and we” and bask in the glory.
However, “a loss, on the other hand, feels like a personal defeat,” a threat to identify that creates psychological discomforts that can lead “to stress, depression, and a greater willingness to confront others. They’ll often double down in support of their team. They might declare their team the best, regardless of the outcome. They’ll say the loss was a fluke and that external causes were to blame — poor officiating, an injury, or cheating by the other team.
“As with sports, political identification and participation can occur on a spectrum. Some people simply vote every election cycle for their preferred political party. Others, however, are heavily invested in the party and its candidates. They devour media, purchase campaign-affiliated merchandise, and frequently flaunt their support in public and on social media.”
After the 2020 presidential election, the writers wanted to know to what extent the concept of team identification applied to politics and surveyed voters just as Joe Biden was confirmed president by the Electoral College.
Using a questionnaire used by sport communication researchers, the writers said they “found that 55 percent of Trump voters in our survey still falsely believed that Donald Trump had won the 2020 election. This result was significantly influenced by their level of team identification; voters who were highly identified Trump supporters were more likely to hold this false belief.”
After noting that some members of Congress and conservative media outlets reinforced those false beliefs by using baseless allegations of election irregularities and voter fraud, the researchers found Trump supporters who “retained unfettered loyalty to Trump, similar to the way a sports fan would react after a big loss. When asked why Biden had been declared president-elect, overwhelmingly, they blamed everything but Trump, most often echoing Trump’s false voter fraud claims.”
With results that showed “both Biden and Trump voters rated similarly in terms of their levels of political team identification,” the researchers say this indicated “the extent to which our politics have become polarized, with voters existing in separate camps that are unflaggingly devoted to their ‘team’ and its leaders.”
Yet sports also fits into another mindset found in entertainment and so ingrained that it is almost invisible: dramatic conflict that reinforces narratives and a sense of self.
Simply put, dramatic conflict is a plot element that exploits a clash between two or more individuals who have contrasting goals or desires.
It’s a formula obvious to anyone going to a movie theater, buying a ticket to a popular Broadway show, or watching television.
And while many may say that it is the same approach used since antiquity, it isn’t.
That’s because of a shift in the idea of character — which had been an exploration of fixed human traits and tendencies and to allow audiences to experience the result of those traits in action — for better or worse.
Additionally, as Greek drama shows, the dramatic conflict was internal rather than an external, emotionally rousing spectacle.
Today — with more dramatic stories written to feed an expanding number of productions for internet, movie houses, and the television screen and the need to grab the audience’s attention as quickly as possible — spectacle is paramount, and the dramatic conflict generally moves into some simplistic variation of good guy versus bad guy and winners versus losers.
As the internet movie income reporting website Box Office Mojo shows, the top five highest grossing films in 2020 shared a similar formula:
“Bad Boys for Life’s” plot is described as “Miami detectives face off against a mother-and-son pair of drug lords who wreak vengeful havoc on their city”; the history-based “1917” focuses on “two soldiers assigned to race against time and deliver a message that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap”; “Sonic the Hedgehog’s” plot involves “a small-town police officer (who) must help (Sonic) defeat an evil genius who wants to do experiments on him”; “Jumanji: The Next Level” involves “the gang” having “to brave parts unknown from arid deserts to snowy mountains, to escape the world’s most dangerous game”; and “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” in which “the surviving members of the resistance face the First Order once again, and the legendary conflict between the Jedi and the Sith reaches its peak bringing the Skywalker saga to its end.”
And since identification is a key component for getting people to engage and keep watching, story lines are designed for audience members to sign on quickly with struggling winners who are rewarded by celebrating in the eventual defeat of their opponents — similar to the way the above sport fans react to their sport team’s victory.
So when some January 6 rioters showed up with banners sporting the image of President Donald Trump transposed into the familiar image of the machine gun-toting John Rambo, a fictional movie action hero played by Sylvester Stallone, they announced their allegiance to the franchised storyline that saw militancy and violence as the only solution in a world where the flawed but pure Rambo followers had to vanquish the polished but corrupt officials.
Elsewhere on January 6, protesters screamed “Release the Kraken!,” a phrase uttered by Zeus in the “Clash of the Titans,” a popular sword and sandal film following the exploits of a Greek hero. The Kraken is a mythical and powerful beast that Zeus uses as a punishment. The statement was made popular by a video advertisement for the film that became a popular meme and gained new life when one of Trump’s lawyers used the phrase to conjure a sense of menacing force that would be used to expose a non-existing false election. In any case, it was a call to action referencing a formulaic spectacle film where action again wins the day.
While Rambo banner wavers, Kraken shouters, and other “teams’” rioters were getting into action, President Trump gave a speech that reinforced the “us against them” narrative.
The former reality television star and member of the World Wrestling Entertainment’s Wrestling Hall of Fame member, who consistently divides people as winners and losers, appeared near the White House and told his supporters, “We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s capital for one very, very basic and simple reason: To save our democracy”; that “You’re stronger, you’re smarter, you’ve got more going than anybody. And they try and demean everybody having to do with us. And you’re the real people, you’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation;” and that, after telling protesters that he was going to walk to the Capitol with them, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
He also told them, “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” — inciting an audience of people decked in the red team colors and costumes, including fantasy outfits, and urging them to create a spectacle that he later watched unfold on television.
However, one doesn’t need to look to Washington, D.C., in 2021 to see how theatrics and entertainment have been affecting government.
From 2010 to 2018, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hired a media consultant to help him become a political celebrity by turning his town hall meetings into taped performances of him attacking, bullying, and insulting citizens who disagreed with him. The tapes were then turned in short YouTube videos and made public.
Filled with calculated comic outrageousness, his videos mirrored numerous other films where a brash outsider shakes up the entrenched establishment.
Dubbed by the Star-Ledger as “Governor Rickles,” after caustic comedian Don Rickles, Christie’s political brand attracted a good number of fans and made him one of the most noted politicians in the nation. That was until 2016 when Trump appropriated Christie’s mix of politics as entertainment, leaving Christie to pick up Trump’s lunch, literally.
Unfortunately, as the above sports writers noted, over the past several years the formula resulted in increased divisions and incivility affecting local politics. That includes shouting and insult-hurling at town council meetings and documented reports of council members physically fighting.
In 1985 — when former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president and seamlessly sealed entertainment and politics — media critic Neal Postman argued in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” that television and popular entertainment have “been transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business” and offering viewers a variety of subject matter that requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and “largely aimed at emotional gratification.”
It is an aim different from the classic drama mentioned earlier — one that attempted to create reflection and debate. Take, for example, the Sophocles’ “Antigone.” Here two influential characters connected by family and devotion to a city become locked in a painful and ethically fraught argument about what action to take during a civil war that is tearing their world apart. With all action taking place off stage and therefore imagined, the play grips the audience with its complexity of choices — none of which provides a happy ending.
It’s a far cry from what has been unfolding in our political landscape of screaming, insulting, and attempting to take over capitol buildings across the nation.
So it shouldn’t seem a surprise that the January 6 siege “looked like a movie scene,” as one member of Congress said for many Americans watching the events unfold on television.
In many ways, the show has been playing in our minds for some time.
For more from The Conversation visit www.theconversation.com.