Has politics become a minor form of show business?

Politics is show business for ugly people

                                               Jay Leno.

1. Introduction

I would have preferred to start this essay with a quotation by William Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely Players; / They have their Exits and their Entrances, / And one man in his time playes many parts…” (Shakespeare, ‘As you like it’). This is one of my favourites but Shakespeare is, perhaps, too deep. And the world seems not to be deep; or at least this post-modern world, which is a world of surfaces, in which everything seems ephemeral and shallow.

The works of Shakespeare are eternal, but the world in which we live is rather similar to Jay Leno or his programme. Something we use and forget, so quoting him it seems more appropriate. Comparing the world with a stage is a great idea. In fact, Leno is using it adding a classification for the kind of audience that fits the political drama. Leno is funny, brief and sharp and this is appreciated nowadays. Shakespeare is wit, formal and slow, definitely does not belong to our era.

Shakespeare worked in the sixteenth-century show business and Leno is doing it now. Both introduce a lot of political features in their shows. There are differences of course, as Shakespeare catered for a few hundreds and the NBC reaches millions. And Leno is more conscious of his power than Shakespeare was. Still they are show business people. The most important difference can be found in the means they use to reach their audience.

The media had a very important role in shaping the world of the twenty-first century as we see it today: as a huge theatre. Media have being building our image of the world, which is so much as building the world itself in our minds. For many things, if does not matter if what we think is real or not, but which our beliefs and attitudes are.

The importance of the media is such that the have made our world to be one only stage in which everybody can be audience; many want to be players, but there is no time for everybody to act, so you have to be cunning and fast and smart if you want to be seen. If you are not seen, you do not exist. Everything happens under the light of the media.

Of course everybody is audience, but everybody is a player as well. (Or at least at some occasions)[1] Even the owners of this special theatre are players. So everything is confusing and blurred and a mess. We still think under old paradigms that were created to explain what it use to happen, but a lot of technological change and new needs have arose and the world is not the same any more. And our old ideas are not useful to understand it.

Media are not media any more[2]. They are not in the middle between politicians and society or between citizens and reality. They take part. They have interests or they are owned by people that have interests.

But we cannot identify show business with media. Perhaps media are not media, but business is always business (as usual) and that means money. Something dirty, something we would not like to interfere with our values. But it does. Show business is an ugly face of media, because is not guided by noble ideals, but directed to sell. Then, if politics mix with show business we do not like it, because it should be something higher. At least, news programs are supposed to be objective (are not they?) but also their border with entertainment is blurred. But, show business? We know we do not want politics to become it.

Why for ugly people? The sentence is very political in a sense. It seems to be advising people not to care about politics. Why should we? If we already have him to tell us what the world is about. To campaign in favour of the war in Iraq, for example[3]. Otherwise, we would turn into the natural target group of politics and politicians, the ugly people. Beautiful people watch funny programs. But it seems to me that beauty fades, and politics remain; and that Leno and others intervene from a political position. Politicians use programmes as Leno´s as a platform to help their interest. Everything quite mixed, blurred, confused. We are going to analyze it now, but the kind of wit Shakespeare and Leno had shown in building their concepts is a good metaphor to show the difference between the old politics and the new politics.

2. Politics

There is an old debate about what politics is. We can go back toGreeceto find a venerable answer to the question by Plato or Aristotle. Or we can stay closer and see in Machiavelli or Marx, if politics is about strategy to remain in power or about social classes. I would have liked to ask Schmitt if politics is about who rules or ask the sweet Hannah Arendt whether she still believes politics is a space of freedom in which we can grow together enjoying human diversity.

Even we chose the best theoretical frame, and then we would still have the problem that the frontiers of the discipline are moving continuously. So things that were not part of the political scope fifty years ago have become part of it now and vice versa.[4] But for the objective of this essay any of their definitions should suit. Actually, some sort of sentence like “everything is politics” could do.

We could discuss what people understand as politics. Probably, nothing very specific, something blurred. Perhaps, if we ask people what politics is they would identify it with a section on the newspaper, or with the first part of the TV news. In this sense, media play an important role in determining what politics is (something which is not sports or economy or society)[5].

If we blurred it completely, then there would be no possible solution for our research. So at least we need something which is specifically political: some actors, as people holding public positions and candidates on their way to obtain them, some institutions as the Parliament or political parties and some decisions of special importance to the society. From this neo-institutionalist point of view we can start to sort things out.

We also must say that we are going to check the kind of process in which politics becomes a form of show business in the Western-style democracies. Those political systems in which the flow of information goes from elite to mass and vice versa. This may not be so typical from authoritarian regimes, in which the information works only from above downwards. (Fagen 1966)

This cultural relativism can be criticized, but politics is about management of the social conflict, and the preservation of human life all around the world. This phenomena of banality in politics seems to belong to countries in which levels of well-being and individual freedom are so well assured that people are not very sharply affected by the kind of policies applied.

3. Show business.

I am ugly enough so that I can study Political Science, but for “show business” I had to look up in the dictionary. It said “those involved in providing entertainment: radio and television and films and theater”[6]. According to some other dictionaries the term is a little old-fashioned and derogatory, so the politically correct thing to say is “the entertainment industry”, also “showbiz” is a synonym, but does not make the concept look deserving of respect.

Sincerely I am not surprised of the negative connotation of the term, as in Spanish, my mother tongue, the English term is frequently used in a derogatory sense which implies frivolity, banality and so on. Then, associating politics to it implies some deficit politics has in relation to what it should be. I think there is some moral judgement implicit in the question. I will not try to answer to the question if this is bad or good. I would be happy enough if I can discover clues that demonstrate whether it happens or not.

4. Is show business politics?

Why if we swap the elements in the question? I think everybody would agree that show business has a lot of political consequences. We do not need to think of Reagan or the Philippines president Estrada (an actor and a singer that were elected Presidents of their countries) to realize that radio, television, and films and theatre can convey political messages. The American army is the most powerful Army in the world, they have bases in different countries.Hollywoodis something similar, it does not deploy troops and weapons, but it deploys stereotypes and values.

In a sense, everything is related to politics. But show business is so in a very special way as it owns and uses the same channels to transmit is product to us as the political actors do. Something that does not happen with, say, sport. Even if we try to make a political rally out of a football match, because “the means is the message” as Marshall Mc Luhan already said in the sixties, so whenever we are connected to it, we are getting something additional

For instance, Jay Leno is a political star. People watch him and people like him, so they are open to listen to his message. When Leno endorsed Schwarzenegger when he was running to become Governor of California. Surely, it affected the decision of some people for that election. When we have seen George W Bush entering Leno´s programme on a motorbike to have a chat with his pal Jay: that’s politics. Then, at least, presenters that have a lot of personal charm and can decide on the contents of their programmes have a lot of political power.

In Spain, Javier Sardá tried to follow the line of Leno´s programme in “Cronicas Marcianas” broadcast by Telecinco. During 2003 he was very hard against the Government of José María Aznar. A former collaborator, Manel Fuentes, started a show “La noche de Fuentes”, also on Telecinco and he invited politicians to talk about everything but politics. Some jokes about politics and a lot of what-is-your-favourite-dish questions.

We have seen Martin Sheen campaigning against war onIraq. We know the political activities of Glenda Jackson. The people of the stage enter the political arena. Joan Baez and other sang against Vietnam War; Bruce Springsteen and REM on tour, campaigning for John Kerry in this month of October 2004.

All those showbiz stars bring their charisma to the political stage. They know they have an influence on people and they use it. Sometimes, this use is conscious and planned. Sometimes it goes together with their work. Sometimes they are part of some larger process occurring in the long term.

5. Is politics show business?

This is the important question. If we say: nay, it is not, then politics will remain something serious and solid. Something reliable in which we can trust to solve the problems of our societies. If we say: yes, it is, then politics will be, or has become (or perhaps it always was) a product of our market economy. Something to use and dispose, something not to trust much, something that money and greed make work as most of the things. Nothing of it will be spiritual or high or noble.

According to what we have seen in the definition by the dictionary, politicians can provide with entertainment (and they do so), but this seems something accessory. We do not pay them for it. In some sense they belong to the show business, in some sense they do not.

I am not able to choose between one of those options. I would rather say that politics nowadays has acquired a lot of the elements of the show business. This is due to the fact that the capacity to transmit information has increased exponentially, but our time to process it has reduced in a rate that we prefer others to do the job for us.

Everything can be watched, so politicians are in the same position as the contestant of reality-shows as “Big Brother”. Even if they do what they would do in natural contexts, they are acting for the show business. They act, because people are watching. It does not matter if they want it or not.

Some politicians, as Kennedy, realized from an early time the power of the television. Now as the information is becoming multimedia, politicians have run to be the first online politician. Five years after the boom of the Internet is hard to imagine a significant politician without his own webpage.

Now, not only what they say is important. Also how they say it, or the suit they are wearing while they say it. And a lot of people demand very different things from them so they have to use different disguises to play different parts, as Shakespeare said. So, the patriotic suit (dark blue, with red tie that reminds the strips and stars) has become a uniform for the American politicians in patriotic moments. Or just jeans and baseball cap, so that American people can see they are normal Americans when they are at home with their families.

Sense of humour is another of those things that in the old times you just cared for when it came to friends and partner. Now we demand it from politicians too. Reagan was a good example, very good jokes. Felipe González had good sense of humour and a charming accent that helped him to remain in office for 14 years (1982-96). Now we can see them. Churchill was a moving voice in the radio with moving things to say. Now you can see the whole of the person. Sometimes voice and speech do not fit, or do not fit with appearance. In the EU summit is not nice if your President is not as tall as the others and so on.

6. Becoming a minor form

Has it become or has it not become? That is the question. Maybe, politics has not changed so much. Perhaps it was always this way. Something about concealing your real intentions behind noble ideals, this idea brings us back to Machiavelli. Or some way to show what you wanted to show. Rumours, complots and campaigns have always been there, we know them from Roman times.[7]

Of course, the development of the technology we use to transmit information and the extension of the political field to virtually everybody suppose a significant change, as in days of old, politics was the activity of a few and there was not much chance for an outsider to know what was happening. But were not they playing a show business for it? Perhaps politics has not changed, it is only played by more actors. The actors know more about the game and its rules. Same in football for children and for professionals, let´s say.

What I would not agree on is that politics is a minor form of show business. If it is at all, then it is the major of the show business forms. Because the most important plays are played on that stage. It can be minor in the sense that the core of politics is, maybe, not affected by the elements imported from the showbiz. In this sense, there is a hard core which is about beliefs, and plans and ideals, one that marketing and advertising cannot reach.

Perhaps Jay Leno is funny. Perhaps George Bush is also funny. But there is still a significant difference. Because the latter can freeze your salary, or send you son toIraq, or raise your tax level or decide on many important things of your life. So we can say there are non-political actors that hold political power, which is a power not exactly of the same kind the tradition political actors have. Actually, this power is very similar to the one the political parties in the opposition have: the power to denounce, to claim to influence the public opinion.

7. Conclusion

It is true that we can compare politics to show business, in the sense that they share a lot of elements. People from the show business enter the political arena. Politicians try to be handsome and attractive as if they were sex-symbols. They can even intend to play the saxophone so that we think it is nice to be ruled by them.

It has something to do with the classification of the types of domination designed by Weber. Even if in the Western world rationality prevails over tradition and charisma, charisma is still an important feature in politics. So outsiders from the show business can provide with plenty of it.

Also political parties are something very similar to corporations. They have a brand and a logo, and invest money and sell us hope. And the kind of advertising they use for their ideas and their candidates is very similar to what we should expect from any other company advertising a product. There are efficient designs and creative people that understands fashion and good-taste behind of that.

Everything has to be well cooked, but it has to appear in front of a camera. If the audience (if the citizens) do not know about it. It virtually does not exist, as a programmed we retire from broadcasting and put on a shelf.

But still, behind politics we find people fighting for what they think is fair. Or people trying to get a better world, or people that would not sell their ideas for a few more votes. There are people voting their whole-life party, because they are faithful to some ideals. For those politics is not something temporary or ephemeral or appealing. They think is a serious business even if it adapts to a changing world.

Basically politics is larger than show business, so the latter is more likely to enter the political field than vice versa. Even if Clinton played the saxophone occasionally to satisfy either his ego or his electors, even if Berlusconi has recorded a CD, I can see more examples of show business becoming politics than the other way round.

So my answer to the question has to be: No, politics has not become a form of minor show business (yet); even if sometimes it seems so. It has not because it is a major area of human life. We have seen several examples. We want to decide. We do not care if we are ugly.



CICERO, Q. T, Breviario de campaña electoral (Commentariolum petitionis) , Acantilado 2003.

COLOMÉ, G. Política y medios de comunicación: una aproximación teórica, 1994 available in www.diba.es/flordemaig/documents/cil/activitats/seminaris_conferencies/comunicacio_govern_local/doc4.pdf

 FAGEN, R.R.: Politics and communication.Boston, Little Brown, 1966.

MCLUHAN, M.H.: Understanding Media.New York, McGraw-Hill, 1965.



Jay Leno´s program webpage:


[1] As Andy Warhol said it “in the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes”

[2] Media is the plural of the Latin word “medium”: something in the middle.

[3] Leno said on his programme: “I don’t know why people are surprised that France won’t help us get Saddam out ofIraq. After all,France wouldn’t help us get the Germans out of France!”, he made several comments supporting the war on Iraq.

[4] As an example of the former we have the environmental issues; as an example of the latter, the State does not interfere anymore with citizens’ sexual options.

[5] How come economy or society are not politics?

[6] WordNet ® 2.0, 2003PrincetonUniversity

[7] The breviary of campaign by Quintus Tullius Cicero “Comentariolum petitionis” is a good example of it.



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