With Donald Trump defending the size of his hands, Ted Cruz dropping out of the race the week after recruiting former opponent Fiorina as a running mate, Hillary Clinton marketing a fundraising “woman card” to take advantage of Trump’s misogynistic gaffe, and Sanders supporters arguing that voter fraud is to blame for his losses in New York and Arizona, the 2016 presidential campaign has been nothing if not entertaining. But just ask Katniss Everdeen—whether you find the games entertaining or deadly depends very much on where you are in the system.
Welcome to the 58th quadrennial American Presidential Hunger Games.
The term “Bread and Circuses, or “Panem et Circenses”, was used by Roman author Juvenal to describe the political strategy that kept the diverse and contentious Roman Empire together. The peace of the public was held by giving the people just enough food to live, the illusion of having a public voice, and enough entertainment to distract them and keep them from revolting. It is no coincidence that the fictional future nightmare country in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is called Panem; the Capitol holds the bread while the surrounding districts almost starve, and it controls the circuses in the form of the Hunger Games, which displays its power by forcing the surrounding districts to provide a tribute of two children a year who fight to the death, providing entertainment to the exploited masses.
The American presidential elections are full of bread and circuses, and this year in particular the idea of revolutionizing the government, upending party politicians like Ted Cruz and Hilary Clinton in favor of more… unique… candidates like Donald ”Make Panem Great Again” Trump and Bernie “Feel the Districts” Sanders has caught on, much to the horror of their respective parties. Bernie Sanders has arisen as the voice of citizens oppressed by a system which has been corrupted by the wealthy. As he continues to refine his campaign, he is speaking to and for marginalized groups, whether calling for protections for migrant workers or making an unprecedented call for the restoration of rights and justice to Native Americans. In the meantime, Trump has floored old-school Republicans in his sweep of working-class voters through controversial policies on immigration, trade, entitlements, taxes, education, and national security.
Regardless of whether Sanders and Trump are actually populists, or revolutionaries, or even refreshingly different, they are both perceived as threats to their established parties and leading party-line candidates. What is behind the people’s rising support for non-mainstream candidates?
The paradox of modern governance is solving the riddle of how to control and direct the masses while keeping them from recognizing the control and direction. Bonus points if the system leaders convince people that the system is in the hands of the people it is in fact controlling and directing. Juvenal understood this—his bread and circuses commentary was a political philosophy on how to successfully control the masses. It is a system of distraction, satisfaction, and warning that works well to keep people from revolting. Until it doesn’t.
In the second book (and film) of The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire, the government of Panem, led by President Snow, becomes entangled in suppressing the rebellions that Katniss’ inadvertently sparked in the previous Hunger Games. The Games, for those of you who have been living under a rock for the last 5 years, pit two randomly selected children from each of the districts surrounding the Capitol against each other in a fight to the death. They play out in a carefully controlled and monitored stadium which takes every opportunity to increase the drama and heartbreak for the masses, who are required to watch. We are told by President Snow at the 74th Hunger Games, in which Katniss struggles to survive, that these games serve two purposes: to remind the public of the cost of rebellion, and to give them hope in the form of a lone victor who would emerge from the Games to be a national celebrity.
After Katniss tricked the director of the Games into allowing two victors to survive, the director was executed by Snow and Katniss became an unwitting symbol of an underground rebellion against the Capitol. Her scrappy, hungry, survivalist innocence stands in stark contrast to the over-the-top glitz and excess of the Capitol, where citizens, who never fear that their children will be selected for the Games, revel in fashion, plastic surgery, extraordinary levels of technology and health care, and so much food they follow the old-school Roman practice of throwing it up so they can eat even more.
The irony of Americans’ love of the fictional districts in The Hunger Games is that, on a global scale, America is far more similar to the Capitol than to the districts. However, within America, the increasing wealth gap is making fiction look a lot more like fact. And it is this discrepancy that Trump and Sanders candidates are banking on in their rebellion against party politics.
Yet even as candidates (including Cruz and Clinton) keep insisting they are outsiders, supporting the voice of the people against the power of the system, pundits keep arguing that it’s still an insiders’ game. How in the world do average citizens disentangle the machinations of the political system from their own needs? How can candidates from outside the party system ever win, never mind actually change the system? How, indeed, can we even figure out who is inside or outside this “system” at all?
In Catching Fire, the answer is that it’s turtles all the way down. Katniss becomes pulled between the rebellion and the system as a symbol of each, and it isn’t until an outsider, working as an insider, rigs the system, that things begin truly catching fire.
Plutarch Heavensbee, the new director of the Hunger Games, begins advising the President to mercilessly suppress of the rebellion through a combination of force, bread, and circuses, while preserving Katniss as a foil of the Capitol. Heavensbee proposes turning the general public against Katniss by manipulating her popular image: “Katniss Everdeen is a symbol. Their Mockingjay. They think she’s one of them. We need to show that she’s one of us. We don’t need to destroy her, just the image, then we let the people do the rest.” His strategy, which seems malicious and effective, at least initially, involves demonstrating the power of the state by shutting down black markets, increasing and publicly filming floggings and executions, and contrasting these actions with frivolous reality television highlighting the now-wealthy Katniss and her upcoming wedding.
However, Heavensbee turns out to be doing the double task of fanning the flames of the rebellion that he is seemingly suppressing. While his duplicitousness is revealed rather dramatically at the end of Catching Fire, anyone who has read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish might guess his game.
Shutting down the black markets was a structural change that in fact shut down the alternative economy that kept people from starving. Katniss herself kept her family alive by selling illegally poached animals through the black market. Take away the bread and you take away half of what kept the public from rebelling. The Capitol may as well have told the Districts to, in the absence of bread, simply “eat cake”.
The increase in floggings and executions also was doomed to backfire, as Foucault could have pointed out. With the end of feudalism in Europe came the end of public torture at the hands of the state—not because the state lost power, or because people didn’t like a good show of torture, but rather because the public began to see torture less as an appropriate demonstration of the power of the King and more as an example of his tyranny. European countries stopped publicly drawing and quartering people because it worked against the interests of the state, stirring up public outrage rather than fear, just as it did in the fictional world of Catching Fire.
But the pièce de résistance in Heavensbee’s manipulations to turn the public against the President was in the theme of the 75th Hunger Games. As the President pointedly announced: “As a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol”, the tributes were to be selected from past winners of the Hunger Games. In other words, Katniss and all the other symbols of hope and survival were to be thrust back into the Games where most would inevitably die.
The power of the Capitol thus laid bare, we are told that there is no hope. The system leaders will triumph no matter what you do. If you argue, you will be suppressed. If you survive, you will be killed anyway. There is no power outside the system, and almost everyone is outside the system. So why not take down the system itself?
America’s political system was designed by people who wanted to transform the power of the King into the power of the People—but they were very careful to designate which people they were talking about. The two party system, which evolved despite the efforts of many of the founding fathers, ends up preserving the needs of the wealthy landowners our system was in fact originally established to protect. And the public can see that, sort of.
It’s why there is so much political purchase in calling yourself an “outsider”. Who would believe that Donald Trump could convince people that he was anything other than extremely wealthy? That Hillary Clinton was anything other than supportive of the banking industry that preys on the lower classes? That Ted Cruz, whose Tea Party politics have successfully wrested control of the GOP away from moderate and liberal Republicans, is outside of mainstream GOP politics? Yet the language the current electoral candidates continues to adopt is that each of them is an outsider.
But we have to wonder if the mainstream candidates, like President Snow, have Heavensbees as advisors. If the party politicians are simply attempting to subvert the very different, but both populist revolutions, promised by Trump and Sanders, they’re doing a terrible job. When Mitt Romney and other party Republicans come out publicly to condemn Donald Trump and to call for his overthrow at the upcoming Republican National Convention, the response was an upsurge in support for Trump. When mainstream media suppress, rewrite, or fail to cover accounts of Bernie Sanders’ popularity and political successes, social media increased in support of him. Did those efforts successfully suppress the outlier candidates? Clearly not. Indeed, they have fueled the other side: the more Katniss, Sanders, and Trump are publically oppressed, the more they become symbols of populist oppression. Clinton herself has finally jumped on the oppressed outsider bandwagon by marketing, rather than downplaying, her marginalized status as a woman.
We are mere spectators in the political Hunger Games. It is ridiculous to imagine as carefully crafted a character as Plutarch Heavensbee working duplicitously for revolution within the party politics of the American system, feeding information into the ears of Clinton or Cruz in order to benefit Sanders or Trump. More often when the makings of politics become visible they parallel the acts of President Snow, who seeks to use The Hunger Games to manipulate the public, divert attention, and crush dissent. When a former domestic policy chief to President Nixon admits that they deliberately knowingly falsely manipulated the public image of war protesters “to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin” in order to disrupt the authority and political voice of those communities, it’s hard not to feel we are trapped in a game outside our making. It’s no wonder the political parties in this election are threatened by outlying candidates who appeal to people’s increasing cynicism about our political process.
Whatever the outcome this November, may the odds be ever in your favor.