We won’t win any points for innovation or originality if we compare the culture of spectator sports to American politics in the Trumpish Age. Both are predicted on a proudly irrational partisanship, a gloriously uncivilized hostility towards the opposition, and an impenetrable ignorance of the fact that it is all a zero-sum game. We have known this commonality, and it is a subject we will touch upon again. Today, however, I would like to draw attention to another shared feature, one which has been neglected hitherto: the salacious relationship to legalized gambling. Only the especially foolish would claim, as Krusty the Clown once did, that there is nothing illicit or even untoward about the incredible sums of cash that are exchanged when the heavyweights go toe-to-toe in the public arena. In January of this year, a special sage wagered $420,000 on a football game, only to see his favored team fall in a decisive defeat. How does one become so comfortably wealthy that half a million dollars can be jeopardized, the potential losses being inconsequential? The same way whereby Michael Bloomberg chooses to gamble more than half a billion dollars of his own. We’re describing a culture, the reckless nature of which endures, regardless of how many bruises are inflicted and bones are broken in back alleys when the losers can’t pay.
Bloomberg, of course, will never be punished with injury for his insolvency. He will be ridiculed for wasting a massive stack of cash, the estimates for which range from $400 to $570 million, on his abbreviated, ill-fated presidential run, but when the final check has cleared, he will have spent only one percent of his seemingly incalculable fortune. Jokes will be made and puns will be shared about his unprecedented investment’s unremarkable return, but the supposed laughingstock cannot hear us behind an impenetrable wall of hundred-dollar bills. Even if we could somehow reach his ears, we couldn’t reach his mind: how can this man, who has the financial omnipotence to spend and not even miss $400 million, at least, ever be made to understand the petty animadversions and insecurities of peasants? We are closer psychologically to the earthworm who tunnels underground to save himself from the ravenous pigeon.
Oh, but let us be higher-minded than to pick on the chubbiest man at the feast. The skinniest of the lot, Tulsi Gabbard, has consumed more than $11 million to date, and for this, she is ridiculed and dismissed as the feeble, scrawny, miserable gamine. She is little Cossette, sweeping the corner of her dismal dungeon while the hearty hogs feast on the fat on the land. Only in the phantasmagoria of corporate campaigning can a guttersnipe have $11 million at her disposal. Somewhere between Gabbard’s golden crumbs and Bloomberg’s ivory tower, we find Joe Biden, who has spent more than $60 million as of this writing; Elizabeth Warren, who spent more than $90 million before she closed up shop; Bernie Sanders, who spent almost $120 million before his opponents pooled their resources; and Donald Trump, who apparently believed it was necessary to spend $75 million to halt Bill Weld in a doomed and one-sided Republican primary.
Allegedly, all of this otherworldly wealth purchases votes: one form of paper purchasing another. However, the dizzying truth of our democratic system is that votes are without value until we can put enough of them together—or, in the case of our quaint electoral college, if few enough votes are put together in the proper sequence. The votes, then, are odds, and the conventional wisdom in Washington states: “The greater your spending, the greater your odds.” This is not invariably true, as Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 and Bloomberg’s more recent disastrous conquest prove, but the sole constant in this system of relentless variability is the fusillade of financial firepower. While monetary supremacy does not guarantee results, participation is contingent on one’s ability to pay the price of admission. Some measure of wealth, of which outside sponsorship is one form, is necessary if one is to be a viable player. Ostensibly, the contestants are playing for votes, but in truth, they are playing with their own money.
The game is played upon a map of the United States, with the tokens—the money—sliding across the board. Sanders spent $7 million to campaign in California, which effectively guaranteed him victory in a state where Biden spent only four thousand dollars. Only four thousand dollars, we’re told: an interesting adjective for a nation in which a plurality of citizens can’t afford an emergency expense of one-eighth that amount. Sanders was more frugal in Texas, where he reportedly spent just under $4 million while Biden spent a negligible $89,000. For the record, Sanders did not spend $4 million in Texas; he spent $3.7 million. Such is the nature of American political spending in the year 2020 that we can round up by a few hundred thousand dollars—or, in Bloomberg’s case, round up to the nearest hundred million dollars—even as the average American is paid less than $40,000 a year. Scope and perspective are lost irretrievably somewhere between the destitution of the backstreets of urban New Hampshire and the executive offices of the DNC.
Lost, too, is the overwhelming majority of this money, squandered as it was on a plethora of failed presidential campaigns. Each of these campaigns was its own bet or wager, a playing of the odds by those who were wealthy enough to withstand the impactful loss of choosing the wrong color, the wrong card, or the wrong horse. We are forsaking the language of democracy and learning the dialect of the casino, that insular fortress in which gambles are made—not all of them lucky, and none of them informed. There is nothing inherently immoral to gambling, just as there is nothing elementally thoughtful to it, either. There is, however, no escaping the fundamental purpose of the casino, which is: to take in money. Do we work for the casino, does the casino work for us, or are we estranged from one another? Perhaps it is time we asked the same question of the well-dressed men and women taking our bets.