How the ‘circus’ became the metaphor of choice in political rhetoric

In the 2023 New Year’s Address, Labour leader Keir Starmer repeated his scathing critique of”the “Tory circus” as he expressed his displeasure at the seemingly unbreakable but completely avoidable cycle of crisis at Westminster. “Nothing has changed,” Starmer declared, “but the Circus moves forward. Repeat and rinse.”

The phrase “performance” has become one of the common insults by his Conservative party. Starmer referred to his political rival’s “ridiculous, chaotic circus” in an interview with Laura Kuenssberg in October 2022.

At the beginning of 2023, the US situation was seen as similar to a circus. In January of this year, Newsweek reported on the saga surrounding the confirmation of a Republican speaker of the House of Representatives by tracking the hashtag #GOPClownShow. The next day there was an opinion article from the Washington Post suggesting that the “Republican speaker circus was a good argument for voting Democrat.”

These recent examples illustrate an age-old connection in popular imagination between Circus and politics.

The story of the history of politics as well as the Circus

In the latter half of the 1800s, the creator of today’s Circus, Philip Astley, was famously (or notoriously, according to your political views) accountable for the hysterical, anti-dissident, or patriotic pantomimes that provoked violent responses from the audiences of the amphitheater he built situated in Dublin, Ireland.

Astley was one of the first performers to utilize traditional circus performances as a tool for political and social criticism. In the last half-century, right-wing protest has led to a “social circus” era that uses “the power of the arts as a tool for human development and social change.”

However, Starmer’s latest remarks and those of the American media regarding US political issues do not indicate any fascination with going to the “big top” circus. Instead, they highlight the expressive power of the image of the spectacle in political discourse, which is much longer-standing than the pantomimes that Astley performed and connects to the initial use of the word “circus” in the classical world.

It is believed that a place for chairs is believed to be at races and gladiatorial games. The classical scholar Catherine Keane argues that the lack of words in these spectacles in public attracted poet Juvenal when he wrote the Satires during the 2nd century. Contrary to the language-based performances that had predetermined meanings, you could make the spectacle of the Circus be whatever you desired.

In one of Juvenal’s best-known and famous expressions, panem et circenses, he argued that the requirements of the modern-day citizen were similar to food and circuses. They were just superficial and minor.

However, to think that the spectacles in the contemporary Circus are not fundamental is to overlook something awe-inspiring about them.

The distorted depiction of the Circus within the political discourse

Television network Showtime began its documentary program The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth (2016) in response to the bizarre trend of populism taking over the US campaigning for the presidency. Despite the change of president that has gone from Republican Donald Trump to Democrat Joe Biden, the show is currently in its seventh season.

Former BBC North America editor Jon Sopel was a follower of Showtime and published The Year in the Circus (2019), his account of reporting on the Trump president.

The book by Sopel-inspired writer Dea Birkett makes a passionate defense of the circus arts in The Spectator magazine of the professionalism, talent, and confidence of circus performers.

In her piece, Birkett (herself a former circus performer) spoke out against the common practice of describing the actions displayed by former US President Donald Trump, his aides, and advisers regarding the Circus. She also criticized the same tendency to describe the behavior of British media and politics when expressing the frustrations of the former premier Boris Johnson.

From the stage to the political

The most well-known documentaries, like the ITV documentary The Circus (2012), have shown just how fragile the traditional life of a circus is in modern Britain. A couple of years later, after Showtime released its documentary that described US political system as a show, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus – previously known for its role as “Greatest Show on Earth” removed its massive top for what was believed to be the final time.

Besides a sense of ironic nostalgia, most of us do not visit traditional circuses. It has not required to have experienced it to feel comfortable using the phrase successfully.

Examining the political rhetoric of the beginning of the 21st century Prof. of linguistics Jonathan Charteris-Black writes that in the book Politicians as well as Rhetoric (2011) in which, metaphors are employed in contexts of political debate “for ideological purposes because it activates unconscious emotional associations and thereby contributes to myth creation.”

In circus metaphors, the emotional connections could be positive aspects of risk, daring exuberance, and freedom, particularly if we consider going on a wild ride in the Circus. Negatively, the word “circus” could represent chaos and cruelty as well as uncivilized and antisocial behavior or the emphasis on style over substance.

Invoking the Circus in political debates is invariably an attempt to diminish an opponent’s strength, capability, and common sense. That is why Birkett has been frustrated over the inability to acknowledge the skills and abilities of her circus performers.

Charteris-Black clarifies that “metaphor is a change in the usage of a term or phrase that gives it an entirely new meaning. If the new meaning is adopted by the broader community, it could alter the meaning of a term that is used in a metaphorical sense”. Political commentators and politicians have substituted the circus ring for the arena of politics so frequently that they have altered the nature of what the term means.

We can now understand the Circus primarily through metaphors and understand its significance better when the title describes other social, cultural, and political phenomena. 

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