Bread and Circuses

Are Americans addicted to theater?

No, I am not referring to the art form; attendance at staged plays has been on the decline for a while, no matter how many times the wicked coastal elites implore us to go see Hamilton. I’m talking about the framing of politics as a sort of performance art, the tropism toward easy narratives in the public sphere because fiction is more emotionally satisfying than reality. The theater I’m talking about is what arises when we enjoy spectacle and hyperbole so much that we start to believe our own bullshit.

The pull of simplified stories and surface-level charisma in politics is nothing new; the most significant political figures in modern American history — think Roosevelt or Reagan — have frequently been both excellent narrative-spinners and outsized personalities. In a sense, oversimplification and a little bit of pizzaz are necessary in democratic systems; if you want the populace to participate, you have to keep them somewhat engaged. What is problematic today is not that politicians put some frosting on the cake of hard-to-comprehend political proposals, but that the cake is, in many cases, becoming all frosting.

We should start with this trend’s most obvious manifestation: the candidacy of Donald Trump. His platform was famously low-substance, and yet this was a critical part of its appeal. Thus spoke the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan:

I don’t know Donald Trump’s heart, not to mention his head. I am not sure he knows his heart and head. That’s part of what last summer [of 2015] made him captivating. I’ll never forget a veteran liberal journalist saying to me, in wonder: “I can’t stop listening to him.”

I said, “Me too.” You never knew what he’d say next. There was a sense he didn’t know what he’d say next.

So many people boarded the “Trump Train” — or at least watched in amazement as it rolled by — in part because they had no idea where it was going. It was enthralling. Trump was so ungrounded, both in political reality and simply as a human being, that one had no clue what the man would do next, what sudden plot twist was coming our way — and, it seems, he didn't know, either. Surely he addressed real and pressing issues, but do you think Donald Trump would have gotten nearly as far if he were merely a sour old man, condemning globalists from a teleprompter? The vaudevillian quips, the reality TV-style feuds, the kabuki-theater facial expressions — in short, the performance — were absolutely integral to his success.

Trump was, and remains, an extreme case, but his politics-is-showbiz outlook isn't an anomaly. This is easy to see on the political right. Congressional Republicans’ votes to kill Affordable Care Act with neither a chance of success nor a clear, coherent replacement plan is a consummate example of what happens when you care more about virtue-signaling (this virtue being handed-down-from-heaven Reaganism) than actually governing. They performed this ritual 70 times. I could go on — right-wing talk radio’s seeming preference for outrage at the GOP’s failures over any less-than-total victory, Ted Cruz’s sublimely idiotic government shutdown charade — but the point is clear: with increasing frequency, style trumps substance. The right currently dominates all levels of government.

A more intriguing expression of this trend is occurring on the “social justice”-oriented left, whose strongest foothold is American college campuses. I lean on the analysis of John McWhorter, a black intellectual and a professor at Columbia University, who largely sympathizes with campus activists but pulls no punches where he sees problems:

I think anybody in their more sober moments understands that even though racism exists and microaggressions are real, college campuses are perhaps the least racist spots on earth. And the idea that any student is undergoing a constant litany of constant racist abuse is theater, it's theatrical –– you hate to say that to somebody 19 years old, but it's not true.

Well intentioned as they may be, these activists are not immune to blurring the line between the substantive and the performative. The idea that white Americans should “acknowledge their privilege” is helpful; the idea that this must become some sort of omnipresent mantra, to be mentally recited whether you're at a protest or buying the week’s groceries, turns a useful concept into something ritualistic and unthinking, the identity politics version of the Act of Contrition. Knowing that the phrase “I don't see color” is microagressive does not mean you're an upstanding and empathetic person; it’s a signal that you're well-versed in cultural-elite manners, the woke equivalent of knowing what fork to use first at a dinner party. “Identity politics” is ascendant in the United States.

All this gives rise to the question: whence comes this love of performance? I can’t claim I entirely know the answer, but I assume it’s not a monocausal phenomenon. One could probably blame it on the same things that garner criticism in modern American society: the hysteria begot by the rise of social media, perpetually ante-upping tribalism and The Big Sort-style segregation, talk radio and the news media’s ratings crusades, etc. But the “whither” side of the equation — where this trend is taking us — is equally troubling, and more immediately important.

When all anyone sees in politics is drama, political opinion will become — ontologically speaking — dramatic. When politicians and commentators escalate every little thing happening in the public sphere with their rhetorical extravagance, it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between when they mean what they say and when language becomes nothing more than a ploy.

Their base can’t tell the difference either. This leads to inevitable dissatisfaction on the part of the voter, and here’s where we see why this pattern is self-perpetuating. If your leaders and sources of information oversimplify every political issue to the point of unreality, it is only a matter of time before you start to believe their barnyard-expletive, and start to wonder when the big victories are coming. When reality rears its ugly head and the victories don't materialize, these politicians and commentators, rather than submit to the tedium of adding some nuance to their arguments, double down; they’ve raised expectations high enough that their voters/audience have no patience for the banality of less-than-seismic change, so they just turn up the volume. Predictably, this route is even less effective at getting anything done, so voters remain dissatisfied, and the cycle continues.

As all this goes down, politics becomes decreasingly substantive. The void is filled with empty sloganeering, broadsides against the nefarious bad guys thwarting your grand plans (or plotting your murder), the pull of superficial charisma — the panem et circenses, the show. This explains the quagmire the GOP finds itself in in the healthcare debate. This, more broadly, explains the entire state of the modern Republican Party. Thence appears Donald J. Trump.

The mainstream of the Democratic Party seems somewhat more immune to the same degree of spectacle, perhaps because the party’s makeup is racially and economically diverse enough to ensure that there’s no one metaphorical show they can all agree to sit down and watch, perhaps for some other reason. We’ll see if left-populism or the centripetal force of Trumpophobia disrupts this balance in the next few years. But the further left you move, particularly in cultural direction, the more this becomes an issue. At the risk of being accused of false equivalency between Trump, et al. and left-wing campaigners, I can’t downplay the fact that these people can and have used hyperbole to the point of debasing language, with the effect being both that the in-crowd starts to believe the drama and that those not already firmly on their team decreasingly believe anything they say. As “isms” (racism, sexism, etc.) stubbornly refuse to go away, the tendency becomes just to talk more and more forcefully about them, which is a good thing — until, that is, it becomes counterproductive. When you claim that Bernie Sanders is a defender of white supremacy, you're left with a much less potent word to describe the attendees of the Charlottesville rally. When you insist that everything is about race — literally, everything — calling out clear instances of racism gets that much harder. Thus the coterie-of-the-woke starts believing that words inflict “violence” and that discomfort is really “trauma,” and thus the uninitiated masses become decreasingly persuadable.

Is there a way we can rid ourselves of the scourge of rampant thespianism? A good place to start would be a rejection of the “litmus tests” for party purity that writers and activists so pantingly obsess over. On top of necessarily circumscribing any one party’s potential audience, this kind of thinking encourages the more general ideological sorting-out that allows groups of people to drift away from political reality en masse. Another helpful development would be the revitalization of the political center that is so out-of-style these days. This doesn’t mean simply splitting the difference between the two parties, nor does it mean the curious combination of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism that for some reason passes as “centrism” but is really just the ideology that lines up with the specific worldview of the coastal-based urban/professional/Silicon Valley tribe. It doesn’t need to be eat-your-vegetables uninspiring, and shouldn’t be; the best plans of action to draw voters back to the real world are the ones bold enough to get their attention.

Of course our current affinity for echo chamber-fueled histrionics could die down organically — perpetual outrage is, after all, exhausting; shock value will necessarily lose its shock. Perhaps some unforeseen crisis will leave us no choice but to cut the crap. But, if the last presidential election taught us anything, it’s that we can’t depend on “History” to propel us forward without effectively persuading people to move in the direction we’d like it to go. A countrywide movement toward calmer, more rational political discourse will likely require an enormous effort on the part of its advocates to change people’s attitudes and provide attractive and viable alternatives. This fact is not the easy-answer oversimplification we might prefer, but that doesn’t make it any less true.