Since the age of kings and queens gave way to the age of presidents and prime ministers, public has stopped looking for divine intervention to save the nation from calamity and instead has begun praying for salvation from the demigods of the modern age: politicians.
By Nazarul Islam
Deus ex machina (or “god from the machine”) is an obvious reference to a plot device whereby the hero of a story is saved from some terrible fate by the sudden intervention of a god. The term comes from ancient Greek drama, where the god would literally be brought onto the stage using a machine like a crane or a riser.
The convention of a god appearing on stage to save the main character was popularized by Euripides—over 2500 years ago, and it has continued to draw attention throughout the centuries, even in Shakespeare, who has Hymen, the Greek god of marriage ceremonies, appear at the end of As You Like It to marry the play’s heroes and “make conclusion / of these most strange events.”
The plot device is still used to this day. Now, instead of a god intervening to save the day, some miraculous event, object, character or ability appears from nowhere to save the day. Think of the deadly, unstoppable Martians in Wells’ War of the Worlds, for example, felled not by the combined artillery of the world’s militaries, but by ordinary bacteria. Or think of the T-Rex at the end of Jurassic Park, appearing out of nowhere to save the heroes from the Velociraptors.
These are not just stories we tell ourselves. These are reflections of our thoughts about the world. They reveal our desires and beliefs, and they set up expectations for how the world really works. In the end, something will appear out of nowhere to help the good guys win and vanquish the bad guys once and for all. That’s how it always works. Right?
Two- and-a-half thousand years ago, that something was a god. But in the modern world, we’re too sophisticated to believe that a god will swoop in and save the day. No, today the deus ex machina isn’t a god. More often than not, it’s a politician.
Since the age of kings and queens gave way to the age of presidents and prime ministers, an increasingly secular public has stopped looking for divine intervention to save the nation from calamity and instead has begun praying for salvation from the demigods of the modern age: politicians.
In our modern world—every election cycle, the public hears how this politician will deliver the nation from its economic woes or that politician will restore a country to its former greatness. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected as president of the United States on the back of his popular campaign slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”
However, like all of the presumptive political saviours of the democratic age—in which popularity contests determine who seizes power and the public is swayed by the nicest sounding promises—Wilson, too, promptly broke his word.
Just five months after his re-election, he oversaw US entry into the First World War and gave his now- famous speech assuring the public that getting the US into war was necessary to make the world “safe for democracy.”
Similarly, Lyndon B. Johnson won election in 1964 promising to limit America’s involvement in Vietnam.
And quite Laughably so, even George W. Bush had ‘won’ the election in 2000 promising a humble American foreign policy and a vow to only fight short, winnable wars with well-defined objectives.
Let’s be clear…this pattern is not just about war and it is not specific to any particular country. Throughout the world, politicians have won elections promising to deliver the inherently undeliverable.
What Australian could forget Bob Hawke’s promise to eliminate child poverty in three years?
And today, what Greek could forget when Alexis Tsipras was swept to power with a strong populist mandate to stand up to the European Union in the midst of the sovereign debt crisis.
Instead, Tsipras immediately sold the nation further into debt by accepting the terms of a punishing €85bn “bailout” package that even Syriza’s own members called a betrayal of the party’s promises.
In fact, with all these decades and—in the case of the oldest democracies—centuries of broken political promises, you’d think that the public would have caught on to the game by now. But, if anything, recent events have revealed that people are becoming more addicted to this politician-peddled hopium even as the lies and broken promises become ever more ridiculous.
Down the road…In 2008, this endlessly escalating wave of political insanity seemed to reach a crescendo as it dashed upon the shores of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
It may seem ridiculous in 2021 that the mere words “Yes We Can” and “Hope and Change” could have sold not just the American voters but the people of the world on Barack Hussein Obama, a junior US senator whose greatest legislative accomplishment up to that point was sponsoring a bill to rename a post office in the state of Illinois.
However, in hindsight, that was exactly what was so effective about the entire “hope and change” campaign. After eight years of neocon carnage—amid the tumult of the ongoing fiasco in Iraq, in the shadow of the rising police state at home, and in the face of the revelations of corporate accounting fraud and banking malfeasance that culminated in a global financial crisis—the public was desperately hoping for change.
None of his broken promises matter, because it was never about any actual, concrete action. If the mass hysteria that swept over the public in 2008 was about achieving tangible results, the Nobel Committee would not have awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize less than one year into his first term in office, while he was still waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and expanding Bush’s drone war into Pakistan.
No, it was never about action. It was about providing the audience of the political spectacle the scene that they were waiting for. The next political messiah is wheeled onto the stage, he waves his hand and makes everything better, and everyone goes back to their daily struggles for the next four years. The ritual is complete.
Indeed, after thousands of years in which heads of state were worshipped as literal gods on earth or, more recently, as divine appointees, it should come as no surprise that popular presidents and prime ministers are almost always portrayed with recourse to religious iconography. The common trope of photographing presidents with the “halo” of the presidential seal around them is nothing new.
But even taking that history into account, the religious frenzy that Obama’s appearance on the national political stage caused was, in retrospect, undeniably strange.
In the hysteria of the 2008 campaign, Obama wasn’t received by the public as a political candidate with a series of policy prescriptions for improving the country. He was the god from the machine, the deus ex machina who could appear on stage and bless everyone with his absolution.