A political scientist explains how political campaigns and professional wrestling have more in common than you think, and what business can learn from watching how fights are negotiated.
"Just when you think you know the answers, I change the questions."
- Rowdy Roddy Piper
The 2016 primary season was bloody. Underdog Bernie Sanders belly-flopped his moonsault over Hillary "The Heel" Clinton, and Donald "The Hair" Trump dropkicked the competition in a political cage-match loaded with colorful characters. Between matches the media exalted the champions and belittled the losers.
The narrative was excessively dramatic. On television, during stump speeches, and on social media, candidates posed and primped and spewed hyperbolic rhetoric. The audience cheered.
But behind closed doors, campaigns negotiated. Delegates and Superdelegates were traded. Deals were struck. Even in a cycle dominated by Outsider bona fides, to many voters the process still seemed rigged, like an entertaining but phoney cage match.
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Ironically, professional wrestling may be the best way to understand the behind-the-scenes machinations of politics. William P. Stodden is a professor of political science at North Dakota State College of Science and Concordia College and contributed social media data analysis to several TechRepublic Election Tech stories. In 2015 Stodden and his colleague John S. Hansen co-authored a paper titled Professional Wrestling and the Creation of Public Opinion, published in The Sociology of Sports, by Brandon Lang.
In the paper Stodden and Hansen wrote:
Like professional wrestling, the world of politics utilizes a Kayfabe to boost public support for policies and politicians. The public is propagandized on a constant basis by political leaders. Jacques Ellul (1965) noted that propaganda is ubiquitous, even when it is not intentionally employed, because it is quite functional. On the one hand, politicians cannot rely on the fickle nature of public opinion to guide their policies, but on the other hand, especially in western democracies, politicians are constrained in their policy making to those policies which appear to have public support.
Politics-by-Kayfabe is not crass cynicism: Like professional wrestling, the Kayfabe has become necessary for all interested participants. In wrestling, the Kayfabe provides a vehicle for fans to accept the spectacle as real. The business itself relies on the public buying into the story just as much as the public requires a story to buy into. The fans at a wrestling match are, in a sense, there to be taken. They want the drama, which so happens to be centered on men and women throwing each other around in the ring.
Stodden is a student of politics, and of wrestling. In an interview with TechRepublic he explained how Kayfabe is a useful metaphor for politics, business, and other competitive ventures.
Explain your professional background in politics. And wrestling.
I have a Ph.D. in political science and have written on several topics, including the similarities between how we conduct our politics in the modern age and sports entertainment. As for wrestling, I am a longtime fan of pro wrestling, beginning back in the heyday of the Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage era.
What is Kayfabe?
Kayfabe is more or less an agreement that everyone, from the owner of the company on down to the little Hulkamaniacs, buys into. Everyone knows wrestling is scripted, but they pretend that it is real because it is both more profitable and more entertaining if we suspend disbelief.
Message control—spin—is a common political, and professional wrestling, tactic. Your paper is titled Professional Wrestling and the Creation of Public Opinion. Explain how wrestling Kayfabe is a metaphor for politics, business, and other forms of competition?
In professional wrestling, Kayfabe is kept religiously. If a member of the talent breaks the agreed fantasy, they are often sanctioned, formally, by the company, because denying that the spectacle is real costs the company money and costs the fans enjoyment. In politics, Kayfabe is kept because it is important to politicians to gin up support among a crowd of folks whose lives may not be directly affected by the policy proposals of the politicians. If, for example, Donald Trump is talking about building a wall between the US and Mexico, he appeals to a segment of the population for whom immigration is important, though their lives may never interact directly with an immigrant on any level. It is important for Trump to never let on that he himself doesn't actually believe that a wall is financially or even physically possible. And it is in the interests of his supporters that he also never breaks this Kayfabe, because then they would have no reason to pay attention to the contest anymore. Further, it is important for the media who Trump's supporters pay attention to, to inform the population that what Trump is saying is straight out of the aether fiction, or to refuse to cover Trump, or to push him too hard to explain HOW he would build the wall, because then the supporters would have no reason to tune in to the channel and would select other media. So in this particular case, Kayfabe is kept by everyone from Trump, through the media, and down to his fans.
What is important then, and what is different from pro wrestling, is that the candidate-media-supporter axis functions to create reality for at least the supporters. When a trusted news outlet is playing along, it becomes easy for supporters who are, themselves, barely informed on various topics, to buy in to the point where the Kayfabe is subsumed beneath subjective interpretation. For the public, it really doesn't matter whether Trump will build a wall. Most of his supporters believe he will, and so for them, he REALLY will build the wall. And they begin to act as if the Kayfabe is real, and so it becomes real. This then turns into a mutually reinforcing feedback loop where supporters reward the spectacle, and the candidate continues to give them more spectacle, and all the while, for the news media, it no longer is a case of whether they will cover the spectacle. They will always cover the spectacle, because that is what the viewers want. And so on and so forth. Whether Trump is actually able to make good on his proposals really doesn't matter after a while. The actors in this scene have all forgotten that it was never real, by acting as if it were real all along.
Candidates benefit by generating votes, media benefits by generating eyeball revenue, and the supporters benefit by getting to feel as if they have some input into the race. Especially during this year's nominating contest, the spectacle and the Kayfabe are in the driver's seat. For those who can see beyond the curtain and keep their head about the entire process, the Kayfabe is as clear as if it were written on a wall. But for most voters, they buy into the spectacle because they want to.
You see echoes of this in business as well. Everyone knows that advertisement always oversells some aspects of a product and undersells other aspects. For decades, tobacco sellers produced advertisements that suggested that tobacco was at least not harmful for you. Even after the truth about the product became known, advertisers continued to market their product. Products that are high in sugar continue to hire lobbyists who continue to work for low amounts of regulation and freedom to sell their products, even though the connection between sugar and obesity and diabetes is firmly established in science. The government, whose job it is to regulate these poisons, willingly ignores the negative health benefits in return for contributions, the industries benefit by continuing to sell their products, and consumers who enjoy indulging in these poisons benefit because they can satisfy their addictions. And we all buy into the fantasy that everything is okay, though we all know that it is not.
The 2016 political cycle has often been compared to a reality show. It seems as though Donald Trump is both using Kayfabe and running against Kayfabe. Is he the best professional wrestler of all time?
He may be. In fact, it is well known that he made a cameo at Wrestlemania, where he smacked down the owner of the WWE, Vince McMahon. Except for Kayfabe, it is likely that this stunt may never have occurred. One thing is for sure, though, he certainly does know about keeping Kayfabe. You could say his entire candidacy is one big Kayfabe.
What lessons should business learn from political Kayfabe?
Well, if it is anything like professional wrestling, companies should learn that there are times when it is possible to break Kayfabe and become the greatest of all. Various episodes where Kayfabe was broken are the best remembered moments in wrestling history. Often, this revolves around the tragic loss or retirement of a wrestler. For example, when wrestler Eddie Guerrero died in 2005, even those who were locked in rivalries with him for the show turned out to mourn his loss. When the "Nature Boy" Ric Flair retired, the entire company turned out to wish him well.
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Business can really benefit when they know when to break the fiction and tell the truth about something, rather than simply resort to lawyers whose job it is to admit nothing to preserve the company. For example, a company that owns up to its mistakes and does what it can to repair the damage earns the trust of the public, while a company that denies responsibility, like BP initially did during 2010's Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, loses the goodwill of the customers, even if it later offers compensation.
Cage match: Hulk Hogan versus Donald Trump. Who wins and why?
This is difficult. 1980s Hulk Hogan would win against 1980s Donald Trump, because Hogan was arguably the biggest name in pro-wrestling, and under no circumstances would the WWE let its biggest name lose to a cameo. Through 2016 Donald Trump is a much bigger name than 2016 Hulk Hogan. I think WWE lets Trump win that one.
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Note: The author and Mr. Stodden have a longstanding personal relationship.
Another note: In a rare display of partisanship, the author also favors Donald Trump over Hulk Hogan in a cage match.