Archived Story

Voters need to focus on Congress

Published 10:13am Friday, August 17, 2012

Column: Notes from Home


“Duas tantum res anxius optat: panem et circenses.” — Juvenal


Interpretation: “The people only care about two things: bread and circuses.”


Two thousand years ago, the Roman writer Juvenal wrote those words about the ordinary citizens of Rome, portraying them as a mob whose loyalties and attention span depended on the supplies of bread and the violent circuses sponsored by the Emperor and other wealthy Romans.

That’s an apt description of the novel and film “The Hunger Games.” A society is ruled through distraction, with televised games pitting young people — called Tributes — against each other in murderous contests; only one contestant survives each year’s game. The young people are sometimes volunteers, but usually end up in the games because they were selected through a mandatory lottery.

The workers in the “provinces” required to supply the young people who fight each other to the death believe it is about pride and additional resources. Or at least that’s the propaganda fed to them by the government. The inhabitants of the capital, living lives of decadent luxury, invest themselves in the annual Games as virtual participants, helping competitors with sponsorships and wagering among themselves as to who will survive.

The leaders of the government know the Games don’t just entertain the mob, but also help control their restive subjects by distracting them with the TV broadcasts of the event, as if it’s just an innocent game show. The government needs this distraction because a tiny elite rules a vast working class upon whom they are dependent for everything both necessary and desirable.

The young competitors in the Games may believe the propaganda about pride for their sector, or hope that they will be victorious and bring additional food and other resources for their family and friends. But as the story unfolds, it’s clear that they are more concerned with their individual survival than any larger ideals.

Like many stories, “The Hunger Games” provides a mirror into which we citizens of the United States can look. How is our reality different from that created by the writer? How is it similar?

At least one thing that is similar is the depiction of entertainment, which has become vitally important to Americans in our personal and public lives as well as a significant component of our economy, providing millions of jobs to people from coast to coast.

Even our elections have become more about entertainment than about substance, with constant polls telling us who is ahead and who is behind. Seeing the humor in politics is not the problem (Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert still do a better job with substance than the networks like Fox and CNN); the problem lies in how pundits and media personalities treat political choices as if they were a game, as do many voters.

In a couple of weeks this political game will be on prime-time TV, with first Republicans and then Democrats spending millions of dollars (much of it provided by taxpayers) with a media build up for their presidential candidates, involving music, balloons, speeches and silly hats. The only thing that will be missing is serious, honest discussion of the problems we face and the difficulty of working together to find the compromises needed to solve them. Instead, we’ll be treated to a high tech pageant, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

Anybody out there running for office talking about the need for sacrifice to pay off bills? Anyone ready to share the pain of fiscal responsibility across the economy?

The American electorate is distracted by political campaigns that pretend they are events in the Olympic Games. We are distracted by the “bread and circuses” of politicians and pundits supporting temporary dictators when our attention should really be focused on Congress.

The legislative branch of government is where decision-making needs to happen. That’s where choices need to be made about the government’s role in all sorts of things: the economy, private lives of citizens, protecting the environment, health care  and retirement. But that part of politics is boring. Legislators, playing the game according to the rules laid out by leaders at the top, have abdicated their responsibilities and undermined the power of voters. And voters, distracted by the bribery of tax cuts and the game of politics, look the other way while it happens.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.