Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

It would probably be redundant by now to point to Eisenhower’s departing warning about the military-industrial complex, except for the fact that it continues to be prophetic and grows increasingly manifest every day. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

It would probably be redundant by now to point to Eisenhower’s departing warning about the military-industrial complex, except for the fact that it continues to be prophetic and grows increasingly manifest every day. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Dread and Circuses: Powerful Forces Diverting Attention From Imperative Measures Through Crass Distractions

It may be tempting to obsess over the ways that the two main parties diverge, but it might be more important to note when they agree. 

Randall Amster

As our ongoing political reality show unfolds in real time, a sickening feeling sinks in that all is not well in America. This has been the case for a while now, but the spectacle of parochial politics, impeachment machinations, and unvarnished authoritarianism at the top levels raises the ante to a critical point. And while the drama of partisanship coopts the public gaze, the tragicomedy of bipartisan assent to deeply troubling policies of militarization and privatization slips beneath the radar. And that was just this week.

With all the handwringing over the partisan divide on full display in the impeachment process, even more impactful news items only faintly registered in the cycle. Passing by near acclaim at the apex of impeachment, the country minted a new branch of the military and doubled down on imprudent trade policies that depress economic and environmental prospects alike. It may be tempting to obsess over the ways that the two main parties diverge, but it might be more important to note when they agree.

We spend trillions on “national defense,” by far the largest outlay of any nation, while arguing over relative crumbs for public goods like housing, healthcare, and education.

To wit, we will now have a “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the armed forces, tucked into a massive new military budget overwhelmingly passed by Congress. We spend trillions on “national defense,” by far the largest outlay of any nation, while arguing over relative crumbs for public goods like housing, healthcare, and education. With the realization of a space-based military force, the arc draws further away from lived experiences on the ground to an assertion of unassailable power in the stratosphere.

On the heels of this alarming turn, the House even more overwhelmingly approved the “New NAFTA.” Like its precursor, this agreement privileges the movement of goods and dollars while impinging on the capacity of people to do the same. It reifies the ascendency of footloose capital at the expense of sustainability, promising gains for working people that are as fleeting as national climate commitments. While the world burns, policymakers are fiddling with economic practices that exacerbate the problem.

It would probably be redundant by now to point to Eisenhower’s departing warning about the military-industrial complex, except for the fact that it continues to be prophetic and grows increasingly manifest every day. Yes, the House can impeach a President, which makes for great theater. But the real show is playing out in the wings, in full view of those who can break away from the action on the main stage for a moment. The docility fostered by the spectacle turns into dismay when the implications come to light.

This doesn’t mean that castigating a President who’s gone off the rails (or never was really on them) is unwarranted on its own terms. It is certainly substantive as an historical rebuke and a marker of at least some principled lines in the exercise of top-tier political power. But let’s face it: we’ve been living inside the President’s extended-play reality show for years now, and little has been done by any of the other branches (including the ostensible “fourth”) to stem the tide. Nor have the people really demanded it.

The phrase “bread and circuses” is often taken as a critique of powerful forces diverting attention from imperative measures through crass distractions. But as its original usage implies, it is equally about the willingness of the public to accept pacification, to “contain itself” by limiting its desires to basic needs and the buzz of exhibition. While the capacity of power-holders to distract and conquer invokes a sense of dread, perhaps even more so does the realization that few among us are demanding anything else.

If “bread and circuses” thus represents an abdication of public responsibility and discernment of what actually matters, then it is incumbent upon us not to confuse style for substance. Personal attributes and political squabbles often define legislative skirmishes, debate performances, and campaign rhetoric. But undergirding this are critical policy initiatives with long term implications for the causes of peace, justice, and sustainability. Achieving these aims isn’t a game, and we won’t get there on bread alone.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is co-director and teaching professor of environmental studies at Georgetown University. His books include "Peace Ecology" (2015), "Anarchism Today" ( 2012), and "Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness" (2008).

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Who Voted for This?': Campaigners Disrupt Truss Speech Over Fracking Ban 'U-Turn'

"Nobody voted for fracking, nobody voted to cut benefits, nobody voted to trash nature, nobody voted to scrap workers' rights," said one Greenpeace organizer.

Julia Conley ·


'Unreal': Amazon Suspends 50 Employees Who Refused to Work After Fire Broke Out

An Amazon Labor Union lawyer called the punishment of Staten Island employees "a violation of workers' rights to join in a collective action about the terms and conditions of their employment."

Kenny Stancil ·


Khanna Tells Biden to Cut Off Weapons to Saudis as OPEC Agrees to Slash Oil Supply

"President Biden should make it clear that we will stop supplying the Saudis with weapons and air parts if they fleece the American people and strengthen Putin by making drastic production cuts."

Jake Johnson ·


'Absolutely Shameful': Michigan Judge Drops Flint Water Crisis Charges Against 7 Officials

"This means there are currently no criminal charges over 8 years later," lamented one journalist.

Jake Johnson ·


Trump Turns to SCOTUS Over Mar-a-Lago Docs, But 'It Won't Stop DOJ'

"This is a very specific and narrow request by Trump the merits of which turn on a technical jurisdictional question, but which runs into fatal procedural obstacles long before that," said one analyst. "It's not laughable, but only because it's small."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo