Circus Maximus: Jerry Springer has come to politics
The political chaos and strife we now see in the United States, was recently characterized by former UK prime minister Tony Blair as a ‘global soap opera’ – clearly an understatement of the insidious process of political, institutional and civil decomposition taking place, as we speak. More than a soap opera, we are witnessing a political Jerry Springer Show unfolding in historical real-time.
Remember the controversial, roaringly-scandalous tv-hit from the nineties? A so-called tabloid talk show, based on a simple, contagious principle: stoke beef between participants – couples, families, neighbours or cheating (ex-)lovers – who had some kind of pre-existing dispute, then fan the flames with piquing questions and revelations that trigger finger-pointing and loud-mouthed threats from both sides, while a rowdy studio crowd cheers the whole thing on. Frequently, the Jerry Springer Show would erupt into physical violence and even the occasional mass-brawl, prompting on-set security personnel to break up the mess engineered by Jerry Springer and his production team.
Who could have ever imagined that a trashy nineties talk show would one day become a blueprint of sorts, a paradigm, for the way politics and public discourse are now conducted in the US and an increasing number of Western democracies? One would only have to point to the recent appointment process of judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court to see the parallels: the blatant tribalism (partisanship), the geisers of anger and indignation spilling out in public, the sheer lust to insult and humiliate, and, last but not least, the utter unwillingness to even consider (the legitimacy of) the opposing side’s wish or view.
The Jerry Springer Show was as prescient as they come. It opened a window into the future more prophetic than most could fathom. The show offered a red-blooded spectacle of collective degradation. Behind it was a concerted commercial effort to maximize viewership by serving chaos on a platter. Fellow-citizens were enticed to demean, insult and threaten one another and collapse all norms of civility. The Jerry Springer Show was, literally and metaphorically, a civil war packed in a ‘soft’ shell of entertainment. That was then. Unfortunately, the civil war is no longer contained within that shell. Boorish anti-decorum has become the new normal and the public sphere has morphed into a perpetual freak show – the Brexit freak show, being one prime example.
The Jerry Springer Show, however, was not the only showbiz cash cow that fostered a ‘playful’ breakdown in fraternity, the sole democratic core value that, unlike equality and freedom, isn’t codified into law and therefore the easiest to distort and undermine. Remember Big Brother, the brainchild of the Dutch entertainment conglomerate Endemol? It became a global mega-hit, produced in 47 countries, ranging from Niger to Norway, from Peru to the Phillipines and from the US to the UK, China and Israel. First aired in 1999 on the Veronica TV-channel in The Netherlands, Big Brother “changed the television landscape forever, ushering in the age of reality TV”, according to the Endemol website. The program “brings together a group of strangers from all walks of life to live under one roof, where dozens of cameras record their every move 24-hours a day, seven days a week.” But these housemates were by no means supposed to live together in a convivial fashion. On the contrary, Big Brother purposely stoked tensions among the motley lot of fame-starved personalities, so that a voyeuristic TV-audience could observe to what lengths they were willing to go – betray, lie, elbow? – to get their co-inhabitants evicted and become the last housemate standing.
Once again, a TV-program opened a prophetic window into the future. This wasn’t about fraternity. At work here was a methodical, commercially televised breakdown of community, except that there was no community in the first place, only a bunch of opportunists craving to make it into the limelight. The sole purpose of living together was to become the last housemate standing by means of intrigue, demagoguery and exclusion. Dog eat dog, winner takes all – the works.
With a former reality-tv-star ensconced in the Oval Office, and a host of horror clowns taking over hitherto solemn democratic institutions, it seems that ‘entertainment’ has become a defining force in our politics. Welcome to the Circus Maximus. Just make sure to keep an eye on showbiz, it probably says a lot about our future.
If it’s not reality TV it’s not politics