Last week, my son and I went to Comic-Con, the huge pop-culture happening that takes place each year in San Diego. The venue was the city’s convention center. As we made our way in, I thought back to the last event that I had attended in that structure, the 1996 Republican national convention. Throughout the day, I reflected on how much Comic-Con has in common with the political realm.
In both cases, members of the general public are vaguely aware of the subject matter and sometimes dip their toes into it. Millions of people have seen the Avengers movies and have a general idea of what Superman can do. Similarly, a slim majority of American adults voted in the last presidential election, and nearly all of them know who won. But that’s about it. The number of people who can explain the inner workings of the Electoral College is roughly equal to the number who can distinguish the various kinds of Kryptonite. (For example, Red Kryptonite has unpredictable and annoying effects: It is the Donald Trump of fictional elements.)
Of course, devoted fans know such things in their bones. Stan Lee, the creator of the Marvel Universe of superheroes and the grand old man of popular culture, refers to them as “true believers.” The phrase is telling. Some of the Comic-Con attendees exhibited an almost religious zeal, wearing superhero costumes as if they were vestments, and contemplating such cosmic mysteries as “Where does Yoda really come from?” The true believers have strong attachments to their specific make-believe worlds, which are not always compatible: Star Wars people don’t mix with Star Trek people.
It’s pretty much the same with politics. The current presidential campaign offers true believers a wide range of candidates, each claiming awesome superpowers. “I can balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting popular programs!” “I can defeat evil enemies just talking tough!” “I can make sure that if you like your health-care plan, you can keep it!” The folks with the wide eyes and funny hats really think that their candidates can do these things, and that rival contenders are either fakers or villains.
The difference is that the Comic-Con folks eventually realize that they are dealing in fantasy. A lot of the political true believers never do.
Wherever the true believers gather, you can also find vendors seeking to make money from them. The vast Comic-Con exhibit hall featured aisle after aisle of sellers hawking all kinds of wares, including “one of a kind” comic books that one can actually buy by the bushel on eBay. In politics, the vendors include not just memorabilia salesmen but consultants who promise access to mystical abilities. When they succeed, of course, it’s often dumb luck, and when they fail, they end up turning their clients into metaphorical frogs.
Leaders in government and politics know that their business resembles pop culture, and many of them embrace it. Before he became president, Barack Obama famously posed in front of a Superman statue in Metropolis, Ill. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont had cameos in several Batman movies. In a recent Supreme Court opinion, Justice Elena Kagan recently quoted a line from Spider-Man.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of pop culture, where good usually triumphs over evil, and things end happily – except in 1970s movies. When a storyline starts to get old in a comic book or movie series, the creators can just “reboot” and start over. That’s not so easy in politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ultimate crossover between politics and pop culture, learned that lesson in his disappointing second term as governor of California.
He has since tried to reboot his acting career, only to discover that American moviegoers have little taste for 67-year-old robots. In the real world, even the Terminator can’t defeat Father Time.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.