Dread and Circuses: Powerful Forces Diverting Attention From Imperative Measures Through Crass Distractions

As our ongoing political reality show unfolds in real time, a sickening feeling sinks in that all is not well in America. This has been the case for a while now, but the spectacle of parochial politics, impeachment machinations, and unvarnished authoritarianism at the top levels raises the ante to a critical point. And while the drama of partisanship coopts the public gaze, the tragicomedy of bipartisan assent to deeply troubling policies of militarization and privatization slips beneath the radar. And that was just this week.

With all the handwringing over the partisan divide on full display in the impeachment process, even more impactful news items only faintly registered in the cycle. Passing by near acclaim at the apex of impeachment, the country minted a new branch of the military and doubled down on imprudent trade policies that depress economic and environmental prospects alike. It may be tempting to obsess over the ways that the two main parties diverge, but it might be more important to note when they agree.

We spend trillions on “national defense,” by far the largest outlay of any nation, while arguing over relative crumbs for public goods like housing, healthcare, and education.

To wit, we will now have a “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the armed forces, tucked into a massive new military budget overwhelmingly passed by Congress. We spend trillions on “national defense,” by far the largest outlay of any nation, while arguing over relative crumbs for public goods like housing, healthcare, and education. With the realization of a space-based military force, the arc draws further away from lived experiences on the ground to an assertion of unassailable power in the stratosphere.

On the heels of this alarming turn, the House even more overwhelmingly approved the “New NAFTA.” Like its precursor, this agreement privileges the movement of goods and dollars while impinging on the capacity of people to do the same. It reifies the ascendency of footloose capital at the expense of sustainability, promising gains for working people that are as fleeting as national climate commitments. While the world burns, policymakers are fiddling with economic practices that exacerbate the problem.

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It would probably be redundant by now to point to Eisenhower’s departing warning about the military-industrial complex, except for the fact that it continues to be prophetic and grows increasingly manifest every day. Yes, the House can impeach a President, which makes for great theater. But the real show is playing out in the wings, in full view of those who can break away from the action on the main stage for a moment. The docility fostered by the spectacle turns into dismay when the implications come to light.

This doesn’t mean that castigating a President who’s gone off the rails (or never was really on them) is unwarranted on its own terms. It is certainly substantive as an historical rebuke and a marker of at least some principled lines in the exercise of top-tier political power. But let’s face it: we’ve been living inside the President’s extended-play reality show for years now, and little has been done by any of the other branches (including the ostensible “fourth”) to stem the tide. Nor have the people really demanded it.

The phrase “bread and circuses” is often taken as a critique of powerful forces diverting attention from imperative measures through crass distractions. But as its original usage implies, it is equally about the willingness of the public to accept pacification, to “contain itself” by limiting its desires to basic needs and the buzz of exhibition. While the capacity of power-holders to distract and conquer invokes a sense of dread, perhaps even more so does the realization that few among us are demanding anything else.

If “bread and circuses” thus represents an abdication of public responsibility and discernment of what actually matters, then it is incumbent upon us not to confuse style for substance. Personal attributes and political squabbles often define legislative skirmishes, debate performances, and campaign rhetoric. But undergirding this are critical policy initiatives with long term implications for the causes of peace, justice, and sustainability. Achieving these aims isn’t a game, and we won’t get there on bread alone.

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