The Buzz

Raffling Off Seats at the Head Table

If Michelle Obama invited you to dinner, saying “I’m hoping you’ll be there,” you might feel you’d hit the jackpot. But according to Walter Kirn, you just might be in caught in the game of political “Suckerball”—and it’s your move.

Writing in The New Republic, Kirn provides a bevy of smart insights regarding this election season’s use of political sweepstakes: Michelle, as she would have you know her, asks you to “enter at midnight” to rub shoulders with “Barack.” Tagg Romney invites you to win a dinner with his “Papa” and The Donald for the cool entry fee of five dollars. With both political camps employing these kinds of contests, Kirn’s attack of the game—rather than the players—elevates his critique of this year’s electioneering gone wild. 

“Lotteries, by definition, are for losers,” Kirn states unequivocally. “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 some normal means.” 

Like most great analogies, this one builds and builds and does not disappoint. Kirn describes the demeaning nature of these political sweepstakes: “The problem with these small-stakes lotteries isn’t that they cheapen politics…They offer prizes places at power’s table that simply aren’t available to anyone but the odds-beating elect.” Kirn tells us why sweepstakes in this context are so abusive: “They ritualize a sense of mass despair at ever achieving influence in normal ways," leaving the reader with almost the same sensation one gets upon losing a lottery, the feeling of a bubble that has burst.

Thus, those who enter campaign lotteries are players of the political game “Suckerball.” It is an ugly contest that “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 vote counts.” Kirn’s notable analysis focuses on one small aspect of political influence, but the implications of his argument may be much greater.