No Shortage of Political Theater

November 15, 2012
John Johnston

Plenty of sideshows, each one clamoring for attention

Findlay Market last weekend, people fed dollar bills into a contraption called the Amend-o-Matic StampMobile.

The colorful, if campy, Rube Goldberg-esque machine moved the bills along a circuitous route, up and around and back down, past a picture of a businessman with a wad of cash in his mouth. Just before ending the journey and returning to their owners, the dollars were stamped with a message, such as: “Not to be used for bribing politicians.”

The machine is on a nationwide tour, sponsored by an organization called the Move to Amend Coalition. Its goal: Get big money out of politics.

It’s just one of the groups that have descended on Southwest Ohio this campaign season, intent on taking advantage of the drama and energy already being generated by the presidential campaigns to draw attention to its own cause. Among the others: Nuns on the Bus, a statewide tour of Roman Catholic nuns advocating for a federal budget that

doesn’t harm the poor; Created Equal, which emblazons trucks with graphic photos of aborted fetuses; and, which flew an aerial banner over Cincinnati urging Mitt Romney to “Dump Mourdock,” a reference to the U.S. Senate candidate from Indiana who made controversial comments about rape.

Call it political theater. There’s no shortage of it in a state that could determine the next leader of the free world. And while a presidential election may not be the greatest show on Earth, it does produce plenty of sideshows, each one clamoring for attention.

“I think ‘circus’ is a good word for it,” said Christopher Galdieri, an assistant professor of politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

That’s not to say that the agendas pushed by such groups are trivial or lack substance. Many serious causes are being championed by deeply passionate people who want to make a difference. But the fragmentation of today’s media – traditional news outlets, a myriad of cable TV channels, the Internet – makes it “really hard for anyone trying to make their voice heard to feel like they’re being effective,” Galdieri said.

“People who want to be heard need to be outrageous, or they need to do something really dramatic. It’s not enough to just release a position paper (and say) ‘this is what we should do to reduce the national debt.’ ”

For a group like Created Equal, getting heard means creating both drama and outrage.

“Vote Pro-Life” says the sign on one of its trucks, next to the giant photo of a bloody fetus aborted at 15 weeks. The group says its trucks have traveled to the area around the University of Cincinnati campus and Downtown throughout the campaign season.

“Our goal is to persuade voters to choose life by allowing the victims of abortion to speak for themselves,” the organization’s website says.

All that's theatrical isn't true theater

During election season, much of what passes for political theater may not be actual theater, said Michael Burnham, a professor in the drama department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. But it’s certainly a close relative.

“We do see a lot of theatrics, meaning people showing off,” he said. “That would be the same kind of theatrics you see if you’re driving by the used car lot and there’s a guy dressed in a clown outfit with a big sign, saying, ‘Buy our cars.’ ”

Theater, he said, is about asking questions. “It’s about opening doors and trying to get people to think about things they might not have thought about before. Good theatrics is anything that leads to civil dialogue ... so people’s minds get opened in some way to maybe listen to both sides.”

The Move to Amend Coalition takes the right theatrical approach, he said. “We are trying to get big corporations and their influence out of politics,” said Ashley Sanders, 30, of Salt Lake City, who is driving the Amend-o-Matic StampMobile across the country. At each stop, it stamps dollars with slogans such as: “Corporations are not people. Money is not free speech.”

The group wants to amend the Constitution to say that very thing.

A long shot, to be sure. But that didn’t stop children and adults from lining up last Saturday to get their dollars stamped. And each time those dollars change hands, the group’s message spreads a little further.



Groups audience: