I watched the last presidential debate in a crowded Manhattan restaurant with large-screen TVs and surround sound. By the end of the night, my drink tab was twice what it normally would have been, and it’s all because of Joe the Plumber.
By the third or fourth time John McCain invoked this pseudo-populist persona, the makings of a new drinking game was already underway. Not just at my table but throughout the restaurant, probably the entire country. With every mention of the name, we shouted, “Joe!!” and lifted our glasses in homage to yet another symbol of an election year that had exceeded its quota of campaign clichés during the primaries. The game was not really all that spontaneous. During the Biden-Palin debates—the second most watched debate in history—words like “maverick,” “Joe Sixpack,” and “you betcha” were the focus of drinking games and ad hoc Bingo boards that effectively raised the entertainment factor, not to mention our collective sense of the high stakes involved in the upcoming election.
It is, after all, more than just fun and games that we’re dealing with here. In the eyes of a weary and cynical nation, this election has a surreal quality that stems in large part from its remarkable unpredictability up to this point. (Remember that less than a year ago, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton were considered the frontrunners, and candidates Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson were contenders poised to redefine the entire field). Even now, no one really knows where this ship is going to land. In the absence of certainty and the growing instability of public faith, something akin to secular devotionalism steps in to fill the gap.
Devotionalism should not be confused with worship, though they often overlap. Devotional practices are not strictly characterized by exalting praise. Rather, they involve studied, self-conscious fixation on specific objects or phenomena endowed with extraordinary significance, typically through ritual acts both individual and collective. They are commonly associated with religious traditions such as Catholicism or Hinduism, where adherents are called upon to commune with volitional beings—saints, spirits, deities, etc.—distinguished markedly from the realm of the human. They are practices that highlight distance and interconnectivity between sacred values and pious subjects. Objects of devotion are materializations of that which is considered to be both immanent and transcendent. They facilitate the performance of religious virtues and signify the presence of the uncanny in the immediacy of the present.
Where then do we identify devotional aspects in the interactive viewing practices that occur at debate-watching gatherings in homes, civic venues, bars, and college campuses from Williamsburg to Wasilla? Think about what’s involved in the drinking and Bingo games that I already mentioned. Such activities are obviously first and foremost expressions of revelry and sociability. But they serve another purpose: they give people reasons to pay closer attention to what’s happening before their eyes. They invite participants to focus on words and objects that are supposed to reflect our political will, and they facilitate public performances of political awareness.
In short, the very act of watching televised debates with relatively large groups of people opens up various possibilities for interactive participation through active attentiveness. This is expressed in repertoires of vocalized and embodied responses: ubiquitous cheers and groans, bursts of delight at every refuted claim or mispronounced word, yelling counterfacts and counterarguments at the adversary of your preferred candidate, shouting exclamations like “Oh my god, did he really say that?” or “You’re not answering the question!!” or “Who did she just wink at?”
Obviously I do not mean to suggest that there is a direct parallel between rituals of political spectatorship and conventional religious rituals, as though the former were simply an extension or transposition of the latter. Yet there is something to be said for allowing categories normally restricted to the study of religion to be applied to situations where one assumes that religiosity is precluded from the observable frame. Since early in this election cycle, and in previous posts in this forum, I have argued that the significance of “Religion & American Politics” is not solely restricted to moments when the theology or faith of a particular group or candidate becomes manifest. Theocrats and witch-hunters notwithstanding, American political culture is nothing if not perennially consumed by the dynamics of sacralization. The project of national governance comes complete with an increasingly dizzying array of incantations, taboos, fetishes, and ancestor cults that keep us on our toes. This is why there are so many dogmatic qualities in mainstream political discourse, be it Democrat or Republican, and why so many social mechanisms remain in place to ensure that advocates of “change” rarely digress from a standard liturgy. And it is partly why rituals of political spectatorship—staged and performed in preparation for our exercise of “real” power in the voting booth—inspire sacralizing tendencies as well. We ritually embed ourselves in the political process in order to reaffirm or challenge the terms on which sacred values are constructed in the corridors of power and in the mass media. We seek to undo the uncanny divide between ourselves and those we believe govern by our informed consent.
Election 2008 has inspired uncommon levels of anxious and anticipatory devotionalism. The media’s unrelenting coverage of the political horserace, and the blogosphere’s endless fascination with every survey, statistic, gaffe and gotcha-moment, has been internalized with intensity by segments of the public that have enough resources or incentives to fixate on each new twist and turn. For some it has become a daily preoccupation, a habitual obsession. One friend of mine is so engrossed in all matters concerning the election that he spends much of his day on the web scrutinizing various news items, media punditry, and campaign analyses (like this one, I imagine). When away from his computer he consults his iPhone, fiddling with its illuminated circuitry as if it were a string of rosary beads. He’s just one example of many. We have all experienced the all-consuming aura of this election. It cannot escape our conversations. We deliberate its meanings and prophesy its outcome with urgency and conviction. We relate to the election just as evangelical Protestants relate to the “Word of God”—we study it, we marvel at its mysteries, and we proclaim it…not because we want to, but because we feel that we must.
There is much to be said for the level of popular attention and enthusiasm that this election has generated. What remains to be seen is what effect this will have on the future of political discourse, and whether the devotionalism of modern spectatorship will ultimately lead to ever-enlightened forms of political consciousness, or whether we will all end up like Joe the Plumber—subjects of symbolic reifications beyond our power to define.