Modern American Politics as Performance Art

At an early Republican presidential debate the candidates all raised their hands like robots when asked if they would veto a ten to one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases to balance the budget. Ten to one! I suspect the answer would have been the same had the ratio been a hundred to one.

This incident alone should tell us that debates have nothing to do with serious policy discussion anymore. Like all the other elements of politics, they're a kind of performance art, with former citizens as passive observers, the media as the final arbiters of value, and the political actors utterly interchangeable.

This entertainment comes at a high cost. The current manifestation of this variety of performance art took off in the 2000 election, when George Bush praised Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher. The idea since then has been to keep the country polarized at around a fifty-fifty ratio, which creates a sense of gridlock and allows many anti-working-class measures to pass muster in the absence of a direct ideological struggle over economics.

The debates--and there have been so many of them the last two election cycles that they create the impression of a parallel, self-sufficient, fictional world--inject the most insane notions into public discourse, making them palatable. This was true of the debates in the 2008 cycle, as candidates on both the Republican and Democratic sides put forth extremist thoughts about escalation of war and homeland security in response to bizarre hypotheticals.

In this cycle, Rick Santorum thinks contraception is dangerous. Michelle Bachman doesn't think a citizen owes the government a dollar of his income. And when the "mainstream" candidate Mitt Romney doesn't protest these notions, they take a step closer to legitimacy. Romney has his own notions: allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition is a colossal crime! Certainly the debate "moderators" never call the participants on their insanity.

The audience plays its part. Woe betide any candidate who so much as hints that we should perhaps think twice about attacking Iran--as Ron Paul suggested. When Rick Perry said he didn't have second thoughts about any of the unprecedented number of executions he had authorized as Texas governor, the audience cheered! As it did when a question was asked if a young person without health insurance should be allowed to die.

Every institution of government is part of the performance art. What else can we call the recent Supreme Court hearings on the health care law? "Justice" Scalia facetiously compared the health insurance mandate to the government forcing individuals to buy broccoli. The hearings revealed the comedic dread roiling the court--a bunch of politicized individuals who could care less about precedent, and who have no qualms taking the country back to the "free-market" nineteenth century.

Regardless of how they decide in the end, they've intensified the toxicity in discourse. They didn't care about their image in Bush v. Gore and they didn't care in Citizens United. The idea is to get people used to arbitrariness. Years of deliberation produce a law, or a hundred million people vote in a close election, and then the "Supremes" just do whatever their fantasies dictate, establishing a parallel world of make-believe to ordinary judicial reasoning.

If what I say is right, then Obama will not run against the Court in the fall election should the healthcare law fall, precisely because it would have the potential of energizing voters and putting him easily over the top. Such bold ideological presumption doesn't fit the script of the "Democratic" president always appeasing radicals on the other side, always pleading for bipartisan comity, while the extremists continue to ride roughshod with measures further devastating the working class.

I was surprised when Obama, at least for a moment, strayed from the script by criticizing runaway judicial activism. But no worries! He's since apparently backpedaled. The media wouldn't stand for it. If my model is correct, then the Democrats will accept the Supreme Court's calumny and move on. Class politics cannot become part of the performance art. The drama has to be about other things all the time.

A truly progressive administration could propose a number of things to address income inequality. Free college. A fifteen dollar minimum wage. Single-payer healthcare. Robust consumer rights. Mortgage forgiveness. But any of these gets us in the area of debating hardcore class divisions. So instead Obama talk about such populist but secondary things as closing tax loopholes for oil and gas companies. According to the rules, he's allowed to do that.

Meanwhile, the real action involving resources goes on without the light it deserves. House budget chair Paul Ryan's proposed budget would gut the federal government, shred all discretionary spending. And various performers legitimize it, so that eventually parts of it move closer to becoming legislative reality. It wasn't a coincidence when Romney talked about "repairing the safety net" for poor people when admitting he didn't worry about them, since this is the term of art Ryan uses for his bleak vision.

Of course there was always an element of burlesque about American politics. But in the 1980s and 1990s, there were, despite the many distractions, serious ideological debates. Clinton warred with Newt Gingrich over the role of government and won. Such clarity has never been rediscovered since George W. Bush's election. Very nasty things have been done--depriving people of fundamental liberties, gaming the system in favor of the very wealthy--but these things are not part of the collective performance art.

As in other recent election cycles, I expect Obama to soon start treating Mitt Romney with the utmost "respect," calling him a formidable and qualified leader, even as Romney goes after him with vicious and underhanded and even racist attacks. The media will enforce the rules as to what is permissible to debate, and what is not. From time to time, Obama will want to say things that make economic sense to him, but then he will pull back toward the miasma of bipartisan unity, or at most pseudo-populist cultural pandering, following the script written for him.

If Obama were to make the class biases of the Court an issue, or if Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum were allowed to win the Republican nomination, then a clear ideological battle would ensue, and the result would not be a red/blue polarized election, nearly perfectly balanced. For the Democrats to win today on the basis of ideology would mean that the Republicans could think of doing the same another day, and neither possibility is desirable amidst the kind of political art that now prevails.

The politics of delusion and disjuncture endure, so that contraception and the Federal Reserve can be imagined to be on the chopping blocks, while basic economic realities are ignored. Unpredictability is not tolerated, and those who dare to deviate from the master narrative are severely punished. Hence, Newt Gingrich was absolute anathema to the media overlords. Obama and Romney are the two most obedient, suave performers in the scheme of things, and were therefore bound to line up for a "final" confrontation: the virtuous One versus mutable Agent Smith.

The beauty of this performance art is that even deviations can easily be spun to the benefit of the overall scheme. In fact, deviations are sometimes promoted, to add excitement to the show, to set the stage for the next level of escalation into unreality. Sarah Palin--just a little too kooky for the rules of the game? But she spawned Herman Cain, who went very far indeed. Mitt Romney's "gaffes"--always about wealth, always revealing the real truth about him, always serving the gospel of prosperity in a devious, laughable, but legitimizing way--as though one were constantly joking about genocide to the point of making further mention of it innocuous.

At the height of the public perception of income inequality, in the wake of the Occupy movement, one of the parties is about to nominate probably the richest candidate ever to run for the presidency, and one moreover who callously flaunts it and jokes about it at every opportunity. This is not by accident. It's to take to grotesque levels a disorder the public is beginning to perceive, to put a presidential face on it, and to make a mockery of any yearning for social justice.

The Democrat will probably win in the end. But the range of policy choices will have moved further to the right, thus serving the ultimate purpose of the whole performance. This will have happened without economic ideology--such as the logic of Keynesianism--ever having been explicitly thrashed out. And the show will go on, cheered on by "citizens" making free choices, women feeling assured that their contraceptive rights are secure, while Tea Partiers exult at the prospect of the safety net being "repaired" at the cost of their own health and security. Quite a show!

On to the "veepstakes" then, followed by the equally unchanging rituals of the party conventions and the presidential debates, the inevitable head-to-head statistical "tie" between Romney and Obama in the polls, and the election coming down to a handful of voters in a handful of states, all the prerequisites for this variety of performance art to flourish among the different audiences.

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