Election perceptions feature Beast vs. Smiler

The playbook for every recent election, from dog catcher to President, is often won by whomever is able to achieve a certain perception in the majority of the electorate. This perception is that their opponent is a malicious beast ravaging the legacy and principles of the nation, while they are the warm benevolence that will redeem and restore the office and destiny of the American Experiment.

British comic book writer Warren Ellis explored this dichotomy in his series “Transmetropolitan,” a futurist exploration of life, culture and politics in the overgrown urban hell of a seaboard spanning megalopolis as seen through the red-rimmed eyes of a profane drug-fueled gonzo journalist named Spider Jerusalem. It goes without saying that “Transmet” is not for children.

The drama of the series is largely driven by Jerusalem’s coverage of a presidential election in the 24th Century. The incumbent president in this fiction, is an abominable character that was obviously inspired by the infamous Richard Milhouse Nixon. Spider was so opposed to this candidate that he only referred to him as “The Beast,” and fled the City for a refuge in the Rockies after The Beast’s eventual victory ala Hunter S. Thompson.

The Beast’s challenger is a palatable new blood politician whose face is perpetually affixed with an uncanny and disconcerting grin; the kind of practiced expression that relies more on muscle memory than genuine human feeling (an amalgam of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair). Spider christens him, “The Smiler,” and uses his columns to support him and unseat the hated Beast. This is an act that Jerusalem quickly comes to regret, as the Smiler proves to be as sadistic and sociopathic as his predecessor was selfish and corrupt.

Ellis’ intent with this storyline was to illustrate the horrors that arise from our two-party system, where every single voter is inevitably forced into a binary choice, sometimes forcing them to discern the “lesser evil” between a crook and a sociopath.

It doesn’t matter how many elections this nation lives through, each one will be declared the one that will determine the fate of our republic, democracy, oligarchy, whatever you want to call it. Every midterm and general is branded as a do or die affair, lest the hated Beast on the other side of the aisle reside in even a marginal seat of power.

To the average voter in 2008, John McCain was the beastly avatar of every act of malfeasance and corruption within the Bush Administration, while Barack Obama was cast as a bright beacon of hope, his smile shining the way forward. Naturally, the framing can shift depending on who you are. In 2012, his opponents did their best to shift Obama over into the role of the Beast, which obviously didn’t work due to how pompous and unlikeable Mitt Romney proved to be. Often the Beast you know is easier to trust than the Smiler appealing for your vote.

The cycle repeated in Presidential politics in 2016, 2020, and at this point it’s pretty obvious we’re getting another round of Biden and Trump in two years whether we like it or not. Who is the Beast and who is the Smiler? That’s in the eye of the beholder, but it’s a binary I personally am growing weary of.

Outside of wedge issues, the politicians and leadership of both parties are content to cooperate together to forgo the interests of their voters in favor of those of corporations, lobbying groups and especially their own. You can bet Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi feel the same way about imposing pay cuts, term limits or insider trading restrictions on members of congress. You’d be surprised what other issues inspire the spirit of bipartisanship amongst these “bitter” political foes.

It is encouraging to see attempts to break away from this dichotomy through methods like Ranked Choice Voting, or third-party movements like New Hampshire’s Free State Project. But too much of the nation is in the grips of this eternal back and forth between two partisan wings that desire nothing more than power. It’s no wonder voters across the nation seem so disillusioned and cynical about their individual roles and contributions to the process.

It’s never a good sign when reality begins to rhyme with dystopian fiction, but that kind of pattern recognition is becoming an accepted part of the 21st Century experience.

Warren Ellis wrote dozens of memorable screeds for Spider throughout the run of his series, but the character’s rant on what the act of voting actually is, rings truer every cycle. I can’t even quote it properly due to how explicit it is, but his description of the absurdity and horror that arise from our ritual cycle of campaigning and electioneering seems so prescient some days one wants to run for the hills just like Spider did.

The frustration stems from the fact that simply running from the world doesn’t stop the world from coming for you. If you don’t participate in the process, you have no grounds to complain, but, as our friend Spider learned firsthand, sometimes a binary choice isn’t a choice at all.


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