One of my theater teachers from South Africa led the class in a discussion recently about authority, and roleplaying in society. We were discussing the plays Accidental Death of an Anarchist (by Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo) and The Inspector General (by Gogol). Both of the plays feature, as their primary vehicle, a poor "outsider" (Fo's "maniac" or "fool" and Gogol's scoundrel) who manage to play the role of a respected figure of authority, with hilarious byproducts.
This got us talking about authority, and how people play at authority, which naturally got us speaking about the current election. After all, what have people been talking about (especially in terms of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, whose experiences each are under scrutiny), but "whether they seem presidential." And the conversation came to the way that pundits in America talk about these debates. After all, before and after each debate, they come up with expectation criteria. I remember that Hilary Clinton, before the Democratic Convention, was basically being judged on one thing: whether she could really sell her endorsement of Barack Obama. Before the first presidential debate, it was, "Can Barack Obama seem presidential and informed about foreign policy?" Before the Pennsylvania primaries, it was, "Can Obama shake the tag of elitist?" We're grading our politicians not on their platforms or our belief in their ability to perform, but on their performance. We often use that word.
We Americans were rather disgusted by the mode of the media, but our professor respectfully disagreed. He said, "One of the amazing things about American politics is that the theater is considered part of the game. You talk about it. You're aware of it."
Ebert's review, linked at the top of this post, is one of the most sublime examples I've seen of it. He openly disavows any sort of political import of his post, and yet manages to hugely undercut Sarah Palin in the article. But how often have I seen the same logic at work? Sarah Palin has been lauded for, if not making any coherent points about policy, sounding as though she makes coherent points.
And yet the polls (according to CNN, CBS, and even FOX) show that the viewers backed Biden. Perhaps our professor is right, and we're reaching a point in which the average voter becomes aware of the theatrics of the entire affair, and thus is able to examine how it works.
I hope that this is indeed the trend, because it'll make smarter, more critical voters.