As the current act of our political drama moves toward its curtain call on Nov. 2, we are likely to be treated to an increasing display of political theater at its best. There are leading actors, clowns, villains, even phantom characters who wield tremendous influence without being seen – Oz-like “men behind the curtain” who create and manipulate the plot and themes designed to capture and hold the audience.
This is the game we are used to because we know well how the game is played. The only thing that seems to have changed much is the amount of money used to guide the drama and the way its sources and influence can be disguised.
The voices that speak to us from the stage of this drama tend to define us by establishing the scope and categories of our thinking. They range from the silly and ridiculous to the wise and profound, from the seriously ill-informed to the very knowledgeable, from the self-centered to the magnanimous.
We the people find a voice we like, either because it sounds like us, or it seems to believe what we believe, or it dislikes what we dislike, or it fears what we fear. In connecting with that voice, we become part of the drama ourselves and lend the weight of our support to what the voice represents.
At the risk of offending the theatrical world with the analogy, we could probably safely say that there are significant parallels. Theater is a very effective vehicle for disclosing profound truths about human experience. It can also be equally effective in its portrayal of some of the absurdities of human life. The voices that speak from the stage of creative drama can help us engage realities that straightforward narrative often cannot, and we would probably do well to take seriously what is being portrayed about us in our current act.
The image that is being portrayed from our national stage appears to be dominated by a passion for winning a contest of ideas and commitments at any cost. It is not unlike that other drama that captures our attention on Friday nights, Saturday and Sunday afternoons in autumn, with its marvelously conditioned athletes, its tailgating communion, body-painted fans, school battle cries, cheerleaders and bands.
Few participants and spectators in that drama are searching for the essence of good football – they just want their team to win, at any cost it seems sometimes. If the team doesn’t win for a few games, rather than call for the hard work of better discipline and training, the fans call for a new coach.
But that’s a game, a part of our culture that can be a healthy interlude from the burdens of a complex world, an arena where the objective is clear and the identity of one’s teammates and opponents stays the same throughout the contest. No one mistakes the game for life itself and the more complex arenas where it is lived.
There are times when we might wonder whether our political drama has become a game rather than theater – a contest to be won rather than a reflection of who we are and of what life is at its deepest levels. Some have observed, and many more agree, that this current act of the drama is one of the strangest in our history, with a truly weird collection of voices.
But now and then, in the midst of the drama, and often from the edge of the stage, a voice of unexpected authenticity interrupts the game and focuses attention on something more important than winning.
Such was the case recently when Joel Burns, a councilman from Fort Worth, Texas, claimed a few minutes of personal privilege in a council meeting to address the issue of the bullying of young gay men and the tragic suicides that had recently occurred. In a moving statement, he reflected on his own experience as a victim of such bullying and encouraged young people in a similar situation to have courage and hope. It’s bad, he said, but it will get better.
His words were not in the script of the drama, and there was personal and political risk in voicing them, but they called us to a higher level of thinking and a deeper level of discernment about what is important in this and every other political deliberation.
The voices from the stage may be stranger than usual this year, and we may not have much choice about that. They tell us a lot about who they are. Which ones we listen to will say a lot about us. We do have a choice about that.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.