I come from a family that votes. I remember being a child in the voting booth with my mother and asking her if it was okay because it was supposed to
be private. I have voted absentee, and in boring midterm elections. I research the metropolitan water reclamation district candidates and the retention of judges. I like to vote shortly after the polls open, trading nods with the other early voters. I save my ballot receipts. In spite of this optimistic participation in the American democratic process, I am still deeply ambivalent about elections, campaigns, advertising, and the efficacy of government.
I don’t think I am alone in this electoral malaise. In fact The New York Times ran a video piece this week about people who were not voting in the midterm election.
Originally, I planned that this post would be a dramaturgical analysis of campaign advertisement narratives in advance of the Apple Family Plays (which are both set on election nights). However, there is not much of interest to analyze in the structure of campaign ads. It doesn’t matter which political party—they use the same advertising script and even the same visual language.
Every political ad is a variation on this structure:
Sinister music followed by an unappealing photograph of candidate X (this is generally black and white and the candidate either looks angry or is mid evil-laugh).
How well do you really know candidate X?
Candidate X says she/he is for (insert hot button topic) but voted lock step with (insert hated political figure from the other party, including unflattering black and white photograph) on X number of votes (include fine print which may or may not be a vetted news source).
Can we really trust Candidate X?
Happy color family photo or video of candidate Y looking approachable and not too wealthy, possibly shaking hands with a group of old/diverse/disabled/patriotic people.
Candidate Y has pledged to do Y (a promise that the candidate cannot guarantee without the collaboration of other members of the political body), Candidate Y stood up against (hated opposing political figure) and voted to do Y (more small print which may or may not be a vetted news source.)
Can we afford X more years of Candidate X and (re-insert name of hated polarizing political figure)?
Quiet fast-talking description of which PAC with a vaguely patriotic political sounding name paid lots of money for this hackneyed piece of political theater.
I am afraid there is not much to analyze in this clichéd script. We know it. It is why we hit the mute button. It doesn’t tell us anything about either candidate. Most of us feel like the aunt quoted in Danny Casolaro Died For You: “Oh they’re all crooks.” Perhaps this is because they use the same script.
The playwright Arthur Miller, in his book On Acting and the Art of Politics, looks at political theater for what it is—theater. He points out our need for authenticity and makes a persuasive argument that what most Americans are voting for is the most believable candidate. However, under this political performance, there is a nagging concern that we might not really know what we are getting. The performance may just be a performance.
At a lecture by the brilliant scholar Lauren Berlant that I attended on Monday night she quoted the poem “Elliptical” by Harryette Mullen. It starts out as follows:
“They just can’t seem to … They should try harder to … They ought to be more … We all wish they weren’t so … They never … They always … Sometimes they … Once in a while they … However it is obvious that they … Their overall tendency has been … The consequences of which have been …”
And it continues that way.
As a pre-election poem it struck me that this is the problem with our political process. We think we know what the other group has to say and we cut them off or we quit listening because we think we know the end of the statement. It reminded me of how actor David Parkes was talking about the difficulty of memorizing for the Apple Family plays because the family speaks in ellipses and non sequiturs, they interrupt and pick up old conversations midstream.
In the midst of a political season of not listening and making assumptions, and in the fears and malaise of a Danny Casolaro world in which it seems that some people are more equal than others, that government may be as culpable as corporations, and that none of them care about the middle class—these family conversations, these attempts to pick up the threads of understanding, whether it is political or in our own families, seem more pertinent than ever.