“Political theater” is a term that has become increasingly popular, but it seems that most who use it underestimate the depth of its meaning. Above all else, and more so now than ever, politicians are performers. One’s actual ability to lead constituents or to create functional, beneficial policy is not nearly as important as who they appear to be.
What matters most in this macabre cabaret is one’s ability to sell their personal brand, a brand carefully sculpted down to the very finest detail to make it as real to and identifiable by voters as is humanly possible, despite the fact that everyone involved—from the candidates themselves all the way down to Jane and Joe Smith on Main Street—knows that it is a farce.
Liberace, then, would have made a fantastic politician.
Much has already been said about this performance of politics, its importance and its relevance, and I could certainly spend some time writing about it, but my goal is to talk about the audience for the performance rather than the act itself.
But first, I want to establish why performance is needed in the first place, which Jeffrey Alexander explains succinctly in “The Performance of Politics”:
“My argument is that the democratic struggle for power is not much determined by demography or even substantive issues and that it’s not very rational, either. Political struggle is moral and emotional. It’s about “meaning,” about symbolically “constructing” candidates so they appear to be on the sunny rather than the shadowy side of the street.”
Now that we have an idea of why political performance is needed, I would like to hone in on some specific aspects of its audience and its intent for that audience.
For instance, in the case of the Michael Dukakis campaign against George H.W. Bush in 1988, as outlined by Joan Didion in her excellent piece, “Insider Baseball,” few expenses were spared when it came to perpetuating the illusion of Dukakis as being on the sunny rather than shadowy side of the street, as a tough guy with a heart of gold.
As a result of Dukakis being a short and not very intimidating man, the Dukakis campaign varied their tactics during the campaign process to present him as being the opposite—from games of catch on airport tarmacs in scorching heat to parading Dukakis about in a tank. Liberace himself would be hard pressed to craft such an over-the-top show!
But for whom is the show really being put on, and what is this “campaign process” that we are talking about?
Didion answers both questions:
“When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about ‘the democratic process’ … but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals … to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”
And what a narrative it is! … But it is manufactured, only tangentially true at best, delivered at another planned stop on the campaign trail in Nowheresville, Middle America to give the local reporters a reason to come to the rally and something to write about while they are there and hey, if a few locals show up that would be great, too.
This is a key point in determining the audience for the campaign process. These campaign stops—in whatever form they may take, with whatever packaged message they are intended to express—are thoroughly meaningless and not meant for the public, despite what the press releases announcing them may say to the contrary. The stops or rallies or what have you are not stopping to attract the attention of the voters. They are stopping to attract the attention of the media.
As Didion writes:
“Among those who traveled regularly with the campaigns, in other words, it was taken for granted that these ‘events’ they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made …”
In other words, these stops are a backdrop, a pretty curtain to hang behind whichever talking head is currently reading from a teleprompter—words that they themselves surely did not write—to the twenty or thirty other carnies in this traveling three-ring circus who have already been given advance copies of the speech, anyway, as well as to the local press who do not have such good graces as to be part of the traveling band.
But it is perfect, performed just right without any hiccups. It is true magic, not mere illusion, and is able to achieve that because there are few, if any, political outsiders there to muck it up. Though the performances themselves are given to the media in order to be published and hopefully persuade the American people, there is no room at the front of the theater for voters because the front two rows, the best seats in the house, are reserved exclusively for the political media.
This show is not for voters and it never has been. This show is for the true audience—the reporters and campaign managers, the interns, assistants, sound and video crews—who watch in a willing suspension of disbelief as the candidate waves his wand and casts his unbearably uninspired spell upon them while simultaneously patting themselves on the back for making it to the journalistic big league, despite the fact that the monotony and falseness of it all makes them want to gargle with Drano.
After the event, they write sensational headlines for stories that describe the event differently from what it actually was, construct campaign coverage packages with perfectly-delivered sound and video bites and beautiful, posed photography and weave it all together into a moving narrative about the candidate’s mission to bring government back to the people.
But the people could not possibly be any further from the caricatures that claims to represent them, speak for them and to be just like them. It is only when candidates have a campaign “gaff”—a “slip of the tongue” or “moment of poor judgment”—that the American people get a glimpse behind the curtain and see things up close, like using binoculars at an opera house to see the stage from the highest level.
So, ladies and gentlemen, please, by all means, take your nosebleed seats and enjoy the show, but do not think for a second that you are or ever have been welcome to be a part of it.