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Super Tuesday: or, Electoral Politics as Sports and Entertainment

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As may be apparent from my title, I am writing this blog on the morning of Super Tuesday: that day on the cusp of winter and spring that the major political parties in the United States have chosen to lurch forward into high gear towards their summer nominating conventions after months of slow-motion maneuvering on the roads to Iowa and New Hampshire. I am deliberately not waiting to learn the results because the outcome of this day is not what I am writing about. Rather, I am looking at the process and the ways in which it closely resembles the structure and experience of popular entertainment.

To begin with, let's look at the name chosen for the day itself: "Super Tuesday." Actually, that's a bit of a misnomer, because unlike the Super Bowl—whose name it closely resembles and connotes—Super Tuesday doesn't actually decide anything. The game, tomorrow, will still be far from over for the Democrats even after all the votes are counted (and California's final tally may take an entire month to complete), making the day more like one in which multiple playoffs are occurring. So, why, we might ask, has it been given such a grandiose label, a title without an actual title?

That's easy. "Super Tuesday" evokes the excitement of "Super Bowl Sunday." It gins up voter interest, making the election that much more like a sporting contest, and, not so very coincidentally, increasing fan—I mean voter—attention to the mass media outlets that profit from the number of viewers of their election coverage.

In a similar manner, the long run up to the nominating conventions, which are much like league championship games, resembles all of the elimination mechanisms—playoffs, heats, Olympic trials, and so on and so forth—by which the sporting world builds an ever-narrowing pathway to a prize that only one contestant can win.

But if electoral politics are like sports, they are also like movies (or television shows, or novels, or short stories, or plays) in that they tell stories, complete with characters (heroes and villains), drama, and suspense, whose outcomes capture their audiences in a gestaltic grip that leaves them hungering for denouements. In this way, election polling doesn't only provide campaign information to candidates and odds-making guidance to potential donors but also previews to end results that, even when the polls turn out to be completely wrong, feel like glimpses into a real future. And the fact that those polls can create such feelings right up to final Election Day itself on the first Tuesday in November only increases their resemblance to the gestaltic experience of traditional storytelling.

I speak from experience. For even when knowing better, I'm checking Real Clear Politics every day to see what the latest polling says. Though the polling numbers are all over the place and patently unreliable, I still get that little surge of satisfaction that comes from the feeling that the future is something that I can see now—which is pretty silly of me, but if entertainment relied on rationality alone, it wouldn't be entertainment.

So, I'll wait up until late tonight knowing that today won't resolve anything and that even today's results won't be final for quite a long time, because I'm in too much suspense over the whole thing not to. And I am confident that I won't be the only one.

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1319435 by amberzen, used under Pixabay License

About the Author
Jack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics. At present he is Director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review, a task to which he frequently applies the critical thinking insights that cultural semiotics can reveal. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.