We’re now nearly a month into the firestorm over San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for our national anthem. Soccer star Megan Rapinoe has joined Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice in America, as have many of Kaepernick’s fellow NFL players. Even President Obama has weighed in.
Kaepernick’s supporters say he’s fighting a righteous fight, has every right to express himself freely, or both. His detractors say his behavior is showy, distasteful, insulting, or downright un-American. Still others, as South Park‘s season premiere skewering the controversy underscored, find something typically, laughably American about the whole thing.
But let’s look past the spin and ask a straightforward but underexplored question: Why is popular culture now the place we’re fighting some of our most prominent and provocative political battles?
It’s simple, really: Mass entertainment culture is now a place where we’re sure it’s especially possible to engage in politics in a way that truly matters. Increasingly, it’s pop stars or celebrities or pro athletes who strike us as having a voice and agency, and the resources to withstand the felt risks of exercising that voice and agency, that we obscure peons lack, even in large numbers. Our traditional political prospects as everyday citizens have left us feeling dispirited, disgusted, and betrayed. Not only do we increasingly feel in our gut like popular entertainment is the last public turf that’s actually “ours” — it’s also the last place where the superstars still seem to represent who we are.
Many Americans are finally accepting what it’s been so depressingly hard to admit: Our model of representative government has collapsed. We know most individuals can’t have any influence on their elected representatives or federal policymaking. We know so many officials we send to Washington, or even the statehouse, are largely interchangeable, focused on playing the inside game to survive another day, not on advocating for their specific flesh-and-blood constituencies. Thanks to big corporations, big banks, big bureaucracies, and the big patronage class of elite functionaries they support, we’ve broadly lost faith that our particular interests can be advanced by the people we empower in the hopes that they’ll advance them. No wonder we’ve lost so much respect for members of Congress, whatever our partisan leanings. We rarely look at them and see ourselves.
Contrast that with professional sports, where end zone twerking draws fines from the league and cheers from the fans. Our entertainment stars are bigger and better than us, but they seem more “like us” — at least in a way our professional representatives have largely ceased to be. And with all of pop and sports stars’ wealth and attention, they can speak for us, too, in a way officials no longer do.
We tried holding out hope for outsider-y political leaders to reclaim the public square as a place of genuine representation. But the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump insurgencies have quickly succumbed to deep disillusionment. Instead of taking back politics, Sanders caved to Hillary Clinton; instead of taking back America, Trump gave in to his worst and laziest instincts.
The collapse of representative government has prepared us to see the realm of big-time entertainers in sports and the arts as the last best hope for the practice of politics. Colin Kaepernick flexed a muscle millions of us are desperate to use again. At the deepest level, he didn’t start the firestorm poised to spread through popular culture. Through our unforced errors and unrequited longings as citizens, we all did.