Politicians, Professional Wrestlers, and Proper Analogies

Politics as sport is a long used analogy. From the horse race coverage of election season to candidates coming out swinging in the debates, we love to relate political competition to our most cherished competitive games.

There’s just one problem with this analogy. We don’t take politics even half as seriously as we do sports.

Imagine turning on ESPN and watching commentators predict the outcome of Sunday’s big game based on who has the most handsome quarterback or whose kicker is cheating on their spouse. Imagine tuning into a commentator on sports radio explaining the chances of one team winning based on the fashion of that team’s uniform or the personality of their coach. To serious sports fans, this kind of analysis would be too much to bear.

Not so in the world of politics. In any given election season, such trivial issues are the rule and not the exception. In fact, superficial coverage has become so commonplace, the average voter is lucky to truly understand the policy stances of any major candidate, much less the independent candidates.

To the sports fan, strategy and performance really mean something. Political strategy, on the other hand, is the art of beating your opponent while avoiding any real performance.

Boxing journalists decry fighters who spend all their time running around the ring, never engaging in any real action. Political pundits, on the other hand, relish in playing the part of a boxing referee who breaks up the action every time any real contact occurs.

While I could go on and on about these differences, it might be more useful to propose a better analogy. Rather than soil the image of our beloved sports, I would suggest it is more appropriate to compare our politics to the world of professional wrestling.

Now I know that I’m not the first person to make this connection. But that may be for good reason. Anyone familiar with this particular field of entertainment can spot the similarities a mile away.

One of the most important parts of a professional wrestling match is the buildup. For many, the trash talk and the antics outside the ring are as much a part of the experience as the fight itself. Wrestlers come out for interviews, displaying great passion and intensity. They throw out all these clever one-liners, and the next day everyone is running around quoting them to their friends.

As in any good show, half the work is in selling the fight. With this in mind, the promoters are looking not just for athletes. They’re looking for professional actors. A successful candidate must be able to convince the public of their worthiness as an opponent and have the charisma to make fans root for them.

While their marketability is the unique personality injected into their lines, the bulk of the script has been written by someone else. While these dressed up warriors may do battle in the ring, they’re ultimately all part of the same acting troupe.

Sound familiar? Well, that’s just the beginning of the analogy.

Political candidates are careful to avoid in-depth policy discussion like wrestlers are careful to avoid serious injury. The finesse in pulling off such moves without getting hurt or tripped up is quite a sight to see.

Honest straightforward answers are sidestepped in the same manner a wrestler stomps on the mat when he’s punching an opponent. Strangely enough, everyone in the audience knows it wasn’t a real punch but goes along just the same.

But is it really that strange? I often wonder if people are most fascinated with the craft of it all. When you think about it, it’s not much different from a stage play. The practice and rehearsing that must go into such skillful deception is all really quite impressive.

In a world where the first and last answer to every question is “let the market sort it out,” politics is a lot like wrestling in that it is all about giving the people what they want. And what, you might ask (or rather our elites have asked), do people want?

Well, at a wrestling event, you may be for someone or you may be against them, but in the end what you really want is a good show. Even if your favorite wrestler didn’t win, you can still go home feeling satisfied.

That, in a sense, is what our democracy has become. The people behind the scenes try to put on a good show, so that if your candidate doesn’t win you can still go home feeling satisfied (or at least pacified) for showing up and taking part.

I know this all may sound very tongue in cheek, but the cynicism in such an analogy is quite warranted. For example, when wrestlers are seen cheating during a match, fans don’t go out and tear up the place because they think it’s unfair. And why? Because it’s all part of the show.

So what happens when you have two consecutive elections where irrefutable evidence of fraud and voter disenfranchisement arises? Not only will the media not cover it, but the very candidates who have a legitimate challenge to the results refuse to even bring it up.

And you wonder why people are so cynical? You wonder why people don’t vote? Well, maybe it’s the same reason why wrestling fans don’t riot in the streets (as testosterone-driven as such matches are) after the champion loses the title. That’s because they know there’s nothing they can do about it. It was all part of the show.

Now am I saying that our democracy is as fake as a professional wrestling match and that all elections are fixed? Absolutely not. But this is where the analogy gets tricky.

Sure, you may not know the outcome in wrestling, but someone does. Moreover, even if the vote was fair in an election, the big winners are already set in stone. And just like in the world of professional wrestling, the big winners are those who sign the checks.

See, even though the people who’ve paid for the campaigns may not necessarily know who’s going to win the election, they still know the outcome. In other words, they know what the public doesn’t know.

When a wrestler gets his hand raised at the end of a match, we all know it’s phony. Indeed, it’s not like we really know anything. We just know we’ve been entertained, and now it’s time to go home.

Likewise, at the end of the election, the feeling is that we’ve all been entertained and now it’s time to go home. The only ones who know that it’s all been phony are those who paid to put on the show.

And by phony, I mean that they understand that when a candidate gets his or her hand raised, that’s not the end of the fight. That’s still part of the buildup. The real fight hasn’t even happened yet. The real fight is what happens after the election (after everyone else has gone home). The real fight is about policy. And I think we all know whose hand usually gets raised at the end of that match.

The problem with the analogy is that a lot of people think of election day as the main event. Yet voting, in a way, is more like buying tickets for which particular fight you’d like to see. Again, the real fight happens after the election. Voting is merely the last part of the buildup to decide who’s even going to be in the fight.

In fact, the winner of the election is more like a judge or referee, primarily there to decide who gets the most points.

The real fight is between those who pay for their salaries and those who pay for their campaigns. And it doesn’t take a political scientist to extrapolate that politicians may not necessarily be in it for the salary.

Again, I’m not suggesting that all of politics is a puppet show. Hell, even wrestlers have the freedom to improvise once in a while. When there are hundreds of policy fights, it’s inevitable that there are going to be many instances in which your elected officials will proudly and accurately represent your best interests. This of course is in their free time when they haven’t been contracted by their promoters to work the fight.

Although I, myself, believe wholeheartedly in voting, I understand why some do not. For the same reason many don’t watch wrestling, they believe the outcome is already decided and see no point in just being part of the spectacle.

Similarly, I know a lot of ordinary voters who dismiss wrestling as folly, unable to grasp why people would sit around making believe they’re watching a real fight. Acknowledging that it’s less messy than actually getting into a real fight, the wrestling fan might counter the voter by asking why he or she is not an activist.

While wrestling is about the spectacle of a fight and not a real fight, some might say that our elections are about the spectacle of democracy and not real democracy.

With no end to the mockery in sight, it’s no wonder why some have lost hope and simply refuse to buy tickets. Neither is it a wonder that others only see hope in tearing up the place.

The one thing I’m certain of is that if we’re ever going to find a new analogy, it’s going to take more than just greater attendance at the ticket booth. If we expect to see real democracy in this country, it’s going to require that we stay after the elections and fight.

Lonnie Ray Atkinson is a concerned citizen living in Nashville, TN. He is the author of What You Are Reading I Am Screaming: A Panic In The Absence Of Question and runs projectQUESTION. Read other articles by Lonnie Ray.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on August 18th, 2008 at 9:06am #

    yes, the structure of discourse by clerico-political class of life (or parasites) to us, the unwashed, hasn’t changed since at the latest with the sumerian ascendancy.
    the talk consists in the main with these members:
    make oodles of tacit and voiced promises. in the bible there are thousands of ‘promises’ (read lies)
    evocation of great perils
    kissing babies or smiling a lot
    lies, half truths, knowitall attitude.
    demonization of real or made foe
    there may be more.
    and what became of, I came to make mistakes!
    just this morning i made a serious mistake just cooking water.
    and people think obama is not going to make one mistake in his firt term?
    and not only a mistake but crime(s)?

  2. Michael Tincher said on August 18th, 2008 at 4:17pm #

    Nicely done! Analogy brings to light ways of looking at confusing issues, but carrying through a complex one, as this one is, as neatly as you have is impressive. What you point out so clearly is that we get the show we support. Apparently we don’t want a real contest between real policies that might be implemented — at least the promoters don’t want such an expensive and dangerous possibility. It tells us something about us when we can fill hours of TV time and large venues with the WWF, but could not get more than an “elite” small crowd to watch a real Greco-Roman contest. One could get depressed for sport as well as politics.

  3. Raven said on August 18th, 2008 at 7:51pm #

    The only differences between professional wrestling and politics are these:

    1. The division between the heroes and the heels are clear, and when the heroes eventually triumph over the heels, the crowd feels gratified that the heroes avenged for the crowd, while the heels, in their infinite egomania and greed, have been squashed and relegated back to the depths of the rookie hell. In politics, there’s no clear definition of who is good and bad, and the people just see all politicians as bad. There has been no clear “hero” in politics- just people that continually lie and cheat to make the lives harder of those smaller than they are.

    2. At the end of the day, the wrestling matches were always the show. We all know that. Our lives weren’t determined by the actions of those that won/lost the match.
    Politicians hold our lives in their hands. They determine what will happen to us as a country. They play with our lives like a game, like a sick game of Risk or Chess. They play their games of dominance, while we are the casualties.

  4. Lloyd Rowsey said on August 19th, 2008 at 2:16am #

    Well, Dave Zirin talks pretty good sports-politics analogies these days, and he put up an article here (and at the Nation) a few days ago comparing American gymnastics at the Olympics to a Big Mac. Now I can’t find the article either here or at the Nation, and I just hope DZ didn’t request both publications to pull it BECAUSE I commented favorably on it (here).

    The utterly apt analogy DZ made was to Bela Karoli’s dissing the Chinese for having little underage (16 year old) gmnastic competitors and the Chipmunk’s dissing Russia for invading another country. I think he wrote that there was a total and appalling absence of moral justification for either man’s position.

    I wouldn’t take the time to comment about this, except I’ve just been thinking about DZ’s extraordinary ability to phrase an apt analogy between the world of sports and the world of politics.

    BTB, my take on the Olympics to date is that it will go down as The Crybaby Olympics, with the U.S. starring. You know. James Blake. The boxers. The gymnasts. The baseball team. (Who’s next?) The pity is it’s the athletes and not the handlers and big TV program owners and manipulators whose names will be attached to the ignominy.

    But not to worry. 2012 will see the circus back in the GG back in GG back in GGB, suck-ass sibling of the good old USA. And this little minor-nations olympics episode will have long passed into one of Chomsky’s black-holes of history.

  5. cg said on August 19th, 2008 at 9:40am #

    Lloyd, here’s a little chipmunk inspired Olympic memorabilia for your scrapbook. The Jim Beam competition.