LOTTERIES, BY DEFINITION, are for losers. You enter them with an evanescent sense of grandiosity and optimism, but beneath this delusion lurks the knowledge that you wouldn’t be buying a ticket at all if you believed you had a fighting chance of obtaining the prize by normal means. Then the winner is chosen—always some distant stranger who’s notably lacking in your best traits—and it becomes insultingly apparent that you can’t beat the system by any means, including the one that you just vainly tried. The game is not only rigged against you; it isn’t really a game. It’s a stone rip-off.
Given these gloomy psychological facts, it’s somewhat surprising, even slightly shocking, that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have embraced the sweepstakes as a fund-raising, mailing-list-building tool—and at a moment when middle-class Americans have started to fear they’re permanently out of luck. These contests are generally announced by e-mails ostensibly sent by the candidates’ family members who use a breathless, faux-familiar tone to convince donors to take a shot at securing something the families get for free: proximity to the great man. If the pitches came from the lobbyists and fixers who usually have to pay dearly for such access, they might sound marginally more genuine, but this would remind folks that face time with our leaders is indeed a priceable commodity, not a windfall to be gained by accident.
The atmosphere of simulated intimacy surrounding these embarrassing access raffles is peculiarly intense this year. Rarely in a national campaign has the fiction that the candidates long to escape the confinement of their thrones and pull up beside us on a wooden stool been so incessantly promoted, especially by a sitting president. The customary move for leaders in power is to construct around themselves a Camelot, but Barack and Michelle, which is what they’d have us call them if we can credit their blasts of chummy spam, regularly encourage us to see them as approachable next-door-neighbor types who happen to be hemmed in by Secret Service agents. Sure, their positions oblige them to play hosts at invitation-only White House ceremonies, such as a recent one honoring Bob Dylan (whom the president addressed as “Bob” as though they’d just finished jamming in the studio), but when the venue is less formal—George Clooney’s house, say, or Sarah Jessica Parker’s place—they try to set aside a couple of seats for anyone with a few dollars and a dream.
With Romney, the jackpots have been less alluring: a ride on the campaign bus or a scary-sounding dinner with Donald Trump. Romney may have friends in high places, very wealthy ones, but aside from the host of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” they tend to be faceless, greying plutocrats, not glamorous, world-renowned wizards of self-branding. If e-mailed a low-cost, long-shot opportunity to mix with the likes of billionaire casino boss Sheldon Adelson or Wichita-based industrialists the Koch brothers, even most conservative Republicans would probably press “delete.” The primitive, glandular emotions that fuel frenetic games of chance are neither stimulated by such dour figures nor common among their shrewd admirers. Obama has a cultural advantage here. He not only commands the support of bigger celebrities, he appeals to a sector of the electorate that’s more accustomed to gambling and losing than investing for tax-advantaged dividends.
This sounds like a joke. It is and isn’t. Ideas about the role of chance in life lie at the very center of our politics, determining attitudes on everything from taxation to immigration policy, law-and-order to civil rights. For Romney and those inclined to see things his way, life in the United States is essentially fair, particularly for the very young, who are born with roughly equal prospects that they can either enhance through their own efforts or squander through some sort of personal negligence. The job of government, if it has a job, is to stay neutral in this “natural” process, which is defined as letting the winners win and keeping the non-winners from grabbing the winners’ take, especially when (and here’s the paradox) the take comes from placing successful bets. The market, though risky, is deemed inherently fair, particularly so for those who play it well. What’s unfair, they feel, is limiting its risks and spreading around its occasional rewards.
No wonder so many conservative Republicans would rather chatter about birth control than strain to spell out their economic philosophy.
What’s also no wonder is that liberal Democrats who believe in managing life’s unfairness on behalf of those to whom it’s most unfair, both at the moments of birth and afterward, during their student-loan repayment periods, don’t mind holding silly raffles to meet George Clooney and the empress-editor of Vogue, as long as the proceeds go to a good cause.
The problem with these small-stakes lotteries that are currently clogging up our inboxes isn’t that they cheapen politics (it is what it is, especially lately) but that they reveal, in a depressing way that makes the whole enterprise seem almost futile, just how insanely expensive it has become. They offer as prizes places at power’s table that simply aren’t available to anyone but the odds-beating elect. They ritualize a sense of mass despair at ever achieving influence in normal ways, from getting somewhat but not filthy rich (R) to getting organized (D). Whatever they generate by way of cash or names and addresses for campaign mailing lists is canceled out by the cynicism they spread (or partake of and embody).
At a time when political idealism is hard to come by at any price, suckerball is an extremely dangerous game. It doesn’t help that the hucksters who promote it, the Ed McMahons of this particular sweepstakes, are tied to the candidates by blood and marriage. Tagg Romney sent me a note the other morning that opened with an encomium to fatherhood, the holiest of conservative institutions next to the debt and equity markets themselves (“Dad taught us a lot of lessons, including the importance of having fun as a family, but the most important lesson he imparted to us was the joy in helping others”), and closed with an invitation to wager five bucks on a chance to rub shoulders with his “Papa,” a famously tight-fisted, high-stakes gambler who’d never take such lousy odds himself, not even if tickets were a penny a pop. The deal stirred doubts in me about Tagg’s upbringing as well as contempt for his estimation of mine.
Michelle Obama’s offers of chaste dates with the love of her life provoke a sadder reaction. For a serious, modern, educated woman who has struggled to balance career and family, public duty and private affection, it must be grating on some level to run around selling brief encounters with the man who made her leave the workforce and take an unpaid, volunteer position as the nation’s leading healthy eater and best-dressed organic gardener. She may have done this because she shares her husband’s lofty commitment to social justice, but what about the smaller, petty injustice of having to hawk the right to share her husband? “And I’m hoping you’ll be there, too, along with whoever you’d like to bring. ... Tonight at midnight is the deadline to enter.”
Suckerball insults everyone involved, even if the insults are chiefly symbolic. It trashes, in a wholly nonpartisan manner, democracy’s noblest statistical pretension. The idea with elections is that every vote counts; the idea with lotteries is that only one counts. All the rest are worthless.
This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.