Political Theater In America

Another season of political packaging is upon us. If 1968 gave us “The Selling of the President”, 42 years on both the product and its marketing are on a baroque trajectory. Personality products and manufactured controversies peddled as disposable morsels. Many are happy with the synthetic diet of Potemkin public politics – as long as the us vs. them game continues.

It’s hard to see how meaningful political action could arise from the current political apparatus. It’s too far gone in technical decadence, when self awareness of the ‘how’ transcends the quaint notion of the ‘why’. And above all, there’s money. The current dysfunction of politics and institutions still provides useful cover for interest group zeal.

There’s many a conversation to be had about how we got here, what can be done, such as campaign finance reform, etc. We’re skeptical that internal reform is possible. In an ideal outcome, one or both of the major political parties would recover sufficiently to re-engage in effective political pluralism. The other trajectory, which we’ve all discussed here, is Man on A White Horse.

With this in mind we watched the recent Chicago demonstrations for signs of effective public theater. How strong would their voices be? Political theater requires first a stage, then an audience and some kind of narrative. Two out of three isn’t good enough.

In fairness to the protestors, Obama moved the G-8 Summit to Camp David. Organizers elected to protest with NATO as backstop instead. Close to Dada in a way. OWS, housing, gender, and social reform groups protesting NATO? At least NATO bureaucrats and many hangers on got an inflated sense of relevance.

A consequence not considered by protest organizers, apparently, is that an audience to political theater determines its effectiveness, not the actors. Ill-conceived protests can boomerang and actually bestow (undeserved) legitimacy on the target. Something they would do well to consider before the upcoming conventions.


  1. says

    I also thought the Chicago protests came off as stupidly diffuse. The audience was perplexed as there was no narrative and it is difficult to link to a past or future action.

  2. says

    I got rid of the cable, don’t listen to NPR, don’t much visit MSM websites unless I’m following a trusted recommendation. I do get the local paper, follow a few (under half a dozen) political blogs, but am basically following the strategy of lying low and I feel sane for the first time since about 1996. Enough stupid still gets through via the Facebook, the twittermachine, the political blogs and the always predictable local paper that I can keep tabs on the danger, but it does provide me the space to think—and to laugh something other than the protective cynical laugh we all know too well.

    • says

      Sound cautionary advice for all of us – to be on guard against cynicism’s enervation. It’s seductive, no question. Am with you in cutting back on the media cacophony – congrats on recovering an equilibrium and that space to think. We’d do well to join you and try to find that path in perhaps our own way.

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