Robin Smith / September 13, 2021

Politics: The Modern Gladiator Sport

Many similarities have developed between the spirit of modern politics and ancient blood sport.

In Roman culture, gladiator fights were originally sponsored by the wealthy to pay tribute to the spirit of their dead with lavish and extravagant events for the elite. These events were taken over by those seeking notoriety after it became clear the sponsors of such expensive and showy violent clashes were able to self-promote and even earn votes. These events of mortal combat were often used to distract the public from issues and crises of the day. Fighting to the death was entertainment that Romans exploited for public visibility and campaigning. As disgusting and barbaric as that may be, today’s political climate has ingredients of the same approach.

Many reading this will remember a time in America when most of us, regardless of partisan stripe, upbringing, faith, race, age, or gender, had at least some agreement regarding the value of virtues, the family, and a society that worked together for a common good while expecting individuals to strive for self-reliance. Even in the arena of politics, Democrats and Republicans agreed on many issues, and the disagreement was focused on the manner to solve those problems and move our communities, states, and nation forward. Today, in pitiful contrast, the public is told that there’s your truth, there’s my truth, and there’s truth of those to come based on experiences and feelings. Everything is fluid and variable depending on one’s race, privilege, or gender. There’s not even agreement on the simple definitions of truth, gender, family, or life, much less equal and equitable standards.

While the substance of our policies and beliefs has been eroding and devolving, the new definition of winning has also gained standing. No longer is the aim of public service a win-win-win mentality, to improve a community, solve a problem, or remove a barrier, providing benefits and growing opportunities for all.

Today, you only win if your opposition loses soundly, so political attacks tend to exceed the bounds of decency, competence, and platform. What has changed?

The magnitude of money and power that now comes with some elected offices is clearly a driving factor that escalates the stakes of the competition but also enriches it. When Ronald Reagan was president, members of Congress received an annual pay of $75,100. Today, that annual income is $174,000, and the power of special interest money, along with other benefits, adds even more. According to a Federal Election Commission summary released on April 2, the 2020 presidential candidates, over a 24-month period, raised and spent in excess of $4.1 billion. House and Senate candidates raised and spent another $4 billion, while the political partisan committees collected and disbursed $3 billion in the same window of time.

At the federal level, the notion of citizen legislator has ended with many serving at the state level now enjoying annual compensation that reaches almost $115,000 in California and $110,000 in New York — unlike salaries in the low $20,000s for legislators in Tennessee, Iowa, and Arizona.

While money and the ascension to power are very often the motivating factors for many candidates, incumbents, the media (the greatest winner in this financial gain), and consultants, the public tone has been a reinforcing factor in the decline of our politics. The ever-growing distrust of the media has forced the average American to seek alternatives for news and information. At the same time, social media platforms have created mini battlefields of hateful engagement, canceling, and digital yelling. Most people are now angry at each other and invested in defeating their rivals, not working to solve problems. Not only have the goals of political players changed, but the public has coarsened its engagement. We’re distracted by the fight and losing opportunities to better our communities through public policy.

Will there be a day when politics returns to the idea of win-win-win? Where voters work to support candidates who articulate a platform benefiting their communities?

Or does the devolution continue with voters and leaders who encourage fighting and brutal destruction involving protests at one’s home, attacks on their family, and destruction of livelihood?

The bloodthirst of politics has changed little.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman statesman and scholar who supported a republic form of government, observed that mankind’s mistakes included the belief that personal gain is made by crushing others. Cicero was assassinated in 43 BC by his political enemy, Mark Anthony, who fought for an autocratic Roman Empire, but that wasn’t enough. In addition to being beheaded, Cicero’s hands were severed and displayed for his work against his rival.

In a figurative sense, that’s still considered winning in politics.

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