Whose Circus? Which Democracy?

Stanley Hauerwas has recently said that elections are coercive, that we shouldn’t take them too seriously, and that they are more like the circus during the time of the Romans (entertainment and distraction for those kept out of the real work of political discussion).

Here are a few quick responses:

1) Hauerwas’s admitted cynicism seems to me rooted in a nostalgia for a bygone era. Against the “Roman Circus,” perhaps it’s the Aristotelian Greek City State: back when “we” (who?) shared a tradition and could have the substantive conversations that would produce new understandings of various goods? Who knows. But how does it follow from “oh, I wish our democracy were like this instead of what we have” to “participating in what we have isn’t very important”?

2) The talk about “coercion” and “shared conversation” have the aura of being important criticisms while being vague enough to not do any work. How is this “shared” conversation supposed to happen and be free of any “coercion”? It’s a 3-minute video, not a book, I know. But it seems like the kind of criticism one makes, again, from a kind of nostalgia for a different world, such that one needn’t be troubled by examining how those comments even make sense in let alone engage our world (pluralistic and teeming with various discrepancies in power).

3) One can and should criticize the elections-as-entertainment-industry. Yet, from the fact that elections are so heavily commercialized, it doesn’t follow that nothing important is at stake or that the two candidates are just the same (I recommend the New Yorker’s endorsement of Obama as a way to catch what is at stake in the election). One need not place one’s eschatological “hope” in America to think that matters of gay rights, equal pay for women, support structures for the poor, green energy, efforts to reign in massive economic disparity, and at least not expanding our military are important matters, to mention only a few.

4) As someone who did the “vote against the system” by voting 3rd party (2000) and abstaining from voting (2004), I am very cognizant that (1) we had eight years of G. W. Bush during that time and (2) we still have a two party system where both leaders are embedded in a kind of neo-liberal, informal imperialism. Which is to say, I’m not sure I accomplished any substantial good that I can point to as worth having had eight years of W. Bush; and I certainly can’t wash my hands and claim “innocence” during those eight years either. Hauerwas isn’t saying “don’t vote” but calling it “coercive,” “entertainment” and something not to take “seriously” presses people in that direction.

5) It’s a 3-minute video, a commercial really, a political and electoral commercial in fact, and it is fair to ask what kind of political effects it can/will/intends to have. Might it not be playing around too? Instead of the “circus” of the election, might not we have a different mystifying entertainment (the entertainment of cynicism, of longing for these “real” political conversations, of consuming seemingly radical political soundbites)?

I’m not saying voting is the end (goal or stopping point) of politics. Nor am I claiming that Obama is going to reverse the global, neo-liberal dominance advanced by the U.S.’s economic and military might. Nor that we need to be against circuses, political or not. But, there are differences between the two candidates and those differences matter, at least to me.

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One Response to Whose Circus? Which Democracy?

  1. Eric says:

    Spot on! But wouldn’t Hauerwas’s response be something like, “the holy boredom of the Church as an antidote to entertainments of both the circus and the cynic”? (I confess that “holy boredom” is a phrase I borrowed from someone/somewhere else, but can’t now recall.) I agree with you that Hauerwas tends to be quite vague about what role, if any, Christians should see themselves playing in a pluralistic democracy and seems to enjoy just the kind of nostalgia-laden critique of modern liberal democracy you describe here (at least in his earlier work). I’m just curious how you see his more substantive vision of the Church as an alternative political formation.

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