After the presidential election, I vowed to write more about the relationship between politics and narrative; and then life intruded, and I lost the impetus. But I encountered a couple of things last month that restored it.
The first was this video from Vox laying out the way CNN covers politics as sport, prioritizing sensationalized arguments between hosts, guests and pundits over, y’know, actual journalism, and how this allows a savvy media manipulator like Donald Trump to disrupt, and ultimately control, the narrative.
The second was this article in the New York Times that introduced me to the term “kayfabe” from the world of professional wrestling. Wikipedia defines kayfabe as the portrayal of staged events as real and true; and also, as the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. It’s a compact between the performers and the spectators, remaining unbroken by mutual accord for the sake of the entertainment and emotional catharsis it provides.
Over the past decades, politics has increasingly become treated like a sport. Fox News is one of the biggest culprits, but it’s gotten a massive assist from the allegedly “mainstream” media outlets like CNN. Back in the early aughts, when I was alone in hotel rooms, I used to put CNN on for a semblance of company. At a certain point, I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s telling that Jeff Zucker, president of CNN since 2013, comes from a background of producing reality TV shows like Fear Factor and The Apprentice. Where the ethos of kayfabe prevails, people feel free to root for the success of their heroes and jeer at the failure of their villains regardless of the actual policy issues involved.
And therein lies the problem, because politics isn’t a sport. Sure, there’s a lot of grandstanding, but at the end of the day, the rules of kayfabe don’t apply. The outcome of a wrestling match doesn’t have a significant impact on the lives of its viewers, but real policies affect real people. Access to affordable healthcare, education, housing, food, decent jobs that pay a living wage, clean drinking water, unpolluted air, secure retirement, a strong military, drivable roads, bridges that aren’t on the verge of collapse… these are things our government is meant use its considerable resources to provide.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost sight as a nation of the fact that the business of government is governing; making the lives of its citizens better. Not winning, not scoring points on political opponents. When everything comes down to Team Red vs. Team Blue, everyone loses; everyone except news network executives and well-paid pundits. And if you think this doesn’t affect you because you don’t watch network news, I would argue that you’re mistaken, because what shapes the narrative of our national discourse affects us all.
So how do we change this?
Honestly, I don’t know. All I can do is contribute my bit in an attempt to shift the narrative, or at least ask people to think about the narrative they’re being fed, and remind them that we deserve more than kayfabe from our elected officials and the media.
Okay, I’ll step down from my soapbox! And since it’s traditional to offer pictures of cute animals as compensation for political discourse, here on the homepage… goats! I spent a sunny spring afternoon watching these kids gambol at a local farm.