When pantomime substitutes for political action
A lot of what passes for work by elected officials is little more than play-acting
How are members of Congress like a mime? Ask my wife. (Photo by Debasish Lenka on Unsplash)
Half of marriage is pantomime, according to the person who has played the role of my wife for almost 35 years with Oscar-worthy grace and skill. Though I might have gotten her words wrong there. Maybe she said that 90 percent of marriage is pantomime. I’m not sure. But when she said whatever it was that she said, I arched my eyebrows and nodded, and she smiled at me adoringly. Does that mean she was right, then?
Look, we all get by in life partly on performance. When we shake a hand and say, “Great to meet you,” is that always so? When we present a cheerful face to a tired check-out clerk or offer a calm hug to an anxious child, despite our own exhaustion or worry, it may be a show, yes – but one of kindness or of love, a little act that might help the world move along better.
Yet there are situations that absolutely demand authenticity over exhibition, and those who go for the show rather than the substance in those moments are to be either pitied or rebuked – the former if they lack the self-awareness to be genuine, the latter if they intentionally shirk reality. Nowhere have we lately fallen further from the standard of verifiability and reliability than in our nation’s political life. To apply my wife’s maxim to Washington and other centers of power, politics these days is surely more than half pantomime. It's as though a growing band of egocentric elected officials has studied Plato, eager to affirm his description of democracy as “anarchic and motley.”1
There’s a place for performance in politics, to be sure. Patrick Henry’s exhortation to “give me liberty or give me death” in the Virginia House of Burgesses fired the passions for a necessary revolution, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s steady leadership stabilized a nation rocked by the Great Depression and World War Two — even if his memorable reassurance that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'“ wasn’t exactly true. A dynamic leader can draw more adherents to a cause, and a big demonstration, as the civil rights era of the 1960s revealed, can marshal the enthusiasm of the masses and inspire those beyond.
But the able do not govern by words alone. Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent second inaugural address charted a policy course — “With malice toward none, with charity for all… to bind up the nation’s wounds…” — that survived him. And the campaign against poverty and legislated racism of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency was executed without the benefit of appealing theatrics, which LBJ couldn’t muster, in any case.
Governing, after all, requires more than an appearance on Meet the Press with a proud powdered forehead. Performative acts in politics should be in pursuit of a goal greater than the warm glow of attention they deliver to a politician. When the lights on the studio set go off, where’s the policy?
I’m not the first to note that American politics has become mainly performative – that is, people play-acting their roles as politicians rather than doing the job that we entrust to the political class. In fact, that somewhat slanders the creative people who deliver great theater, music and dance for our illumination and inspiration. When governance devolves into performance alone, however, we’re left with mere spectacle. It’s we citizens, then, who deserve the pity.
Just now, for example, House Republicans are staging an impeachment pageant targeting Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security. The Constitution allows impeachment of federal officials, setting up their possible removal from office, for treason, bribery or “other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Nobody has shown that Mayorkas has committed any crimes, let alone those on a scale of treason or bribery, but that didn’t stop a House committee from voting this week along party lines, 18 to 15, to impeach him. Republicans claim Mayorkas has refused to comply with laws that could stop the influx of undocumented migrants at the southern border.2
Ironically, though, that vote came as Republicans were pulling away from bipartisan negotiations aimed at doing just what they claim to want. After Donald Trump complained that the yet-unwritten bill to strengthen border security would be an election year “gift” to Democrats, a growing chorus of Republicans have made it clear that they won’t vote for any bill that would do what they’re accusing Mayorkas of not doing. That is, they are staging a show even as they’re closing down what could be a rare presentation of reality.
Of course, there’s no chance a Democrat-led Senate will remove Mayorkas from office, especially with constitutional experts uniformly insisting that there’s no legal argument for impeachment. Yet in the best tradition of the stage, Republicans are insisting that the show, widely reviewed as pointless, must go on. And the Mayorkas impeachment drama will likely have a sequel: an impeachment of Joe Biden as the presidential campaign nears. Egged on by the Republican publicity agents at Fox News anchor desks, the House members are auditioning for leading roles.
In that regard, consider the track record of Elise Stefanik, the fourth-ranking House Republican, who is said to be high on Trump’s list of potential vice presidential candidates. Stefanik was elected to Congress from Upstate New York claiming to be a moderate – she wouldn’t even say in 2016, during her first re-election race, whether she was going to vote for Trump – but over the past two years she has pivoted to being Trump’s most flagrant fawner. Former Rep. Liz Cheney noted that Stefanik had been a “reasonable and thoughtful” legislator until about the time of the Capitol insurrection in 2021. Last month she wrote of Stefanik, “One day, she will have to explain how and why she morphed into a total crackpot.” 3
We have a good sense of why: because she wants to be famous, and perhaps even powerful. Why did the great British actor Alan Rickman, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, turn to movie-making, most memorably in the role of Snape in the Harry Potter franchise? Because he had a chance to become a great star. Rickman got a kick out of his first award for movie acting, remarking, “This will be a healthy reminder to me that subtlety isn’t everything.” Yet Rickman kept his art alive as an honored actor; Stefanik, in contrast, has sacrificed her integrity as a public servant on the altar of ambition.4
Many days now, the whole House majority seems to have abandoned lawmaking in pursuit of political theater. It can’t even manage the basic task of passing a budget. The nation narrowly averted a federal shutdown three times in recent months by stopgap funding – the latest tranche of which will run out next month. Beyond its show of criticizing U.S. border policy while refusing to do anything about it, the members mostly bicker among themselves and push the fanciful plot line (again, without any evidence) that Joe Biden is personally corrupt. They have refused to pass the funding Ukraine needs to continue its fight protecting western Europe, and stalled initiatives to limit the twin scourges of drugs and semi-automatic firearms in our society.
If it’s not to fix such problems, what’s the role of Congress? It is a labor-intensive and expensive spectacle at a level that would doom any Broadway production to a quick and final curtain. But the Capitol Hill show goes on.
It's not surprising that the practice of politics has gotten more similar to that of movies and TV, because the way we consume information requires the sort of demand on our attention that visual performances provide. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”5 So a politician determined to win our devotion at any cost must first get our attention. Psychologists say we are increasingly driven by marketing, the great tool of politics, meaning that we are more vulnerable to what they call exogenous attention — external forces driving what we focus upon.6
Donald Trump provides a lesson in that: After decades being viewed as an outrageous or even laughable character in New York City’s social and business milieu, he found a way to draw nationwide attention when he became the star of a reality TV series – a genre that he had initially derided as “for the bottom-feeders of society.” Yet that audience rescued what had been a flagging real estate career: Over 14 seasons on NBC, Trump became nationally famous, earning hundreds of millions of dollars and setting up that audience he once abhorred to fuel an unlikely presidential campaign in 2016.7
He's not the first performer to thrive in politics, certainly. Ronald Reagan turned his modest acting career into a role as president of the Screen Actors Guild, then got elected governor of California and president of the United States. Actors George Murphy, Fred Thompson and Al Franken because U.S. senators, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected California governor. More impressively, Volodymyr Zelensky was a comic who played the role of a fictional Ukrainian president on TV before he was elected to the job in reality in 2019.
Indeed, many believe Zelensky’s capacity to lead Ukraine in wartime derives in no small part from his ability to play his role effectively. That’s the argument of The Showman, a new biography of Zelensky by Time magazine correspondent Simon Shuster. “It was the showmanship he honed over more than 20 years as an actor on the stage and a producer in the movie business that made Zelensky so effective in fighting this war,” writes Shuster. 8
Yet what sets apart Zelensky and some others who have gone from playing roles to performing ably as leading citizens is this: a devotion to actually doing the work of their public jobs. Zelensky really wants to make a difference, Shuster writes – which isn’t the same as play-acting for the cameras in order to win election, attention, fame and perhaps even power.
Tragically for all of us, many of the attention-seekers in Congress fail to recognize that there are consequences if their real work is not done, and that their performance skills as play-actors in the public arena aren’t translating to what should be their agenda. To be charitable, we may see them as exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias in which people over-estimate their knowledge or ability in a specific field. “Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,” the Cornell University psychologists who first developed the notion explained in 1999.9
But that’s assigning a sense of good will to the politicians who preen for the cameras that few seem to deserve. And even if we were to grant them that benefit of the doubt, it’s not at all like the pantomime of a good marriage, which is where this discussion began, as you may recall.
It’s possible, I suppose, that my wife’s apparently thoughtful nodding when I describe a column topic I’m keen to explore isn’t really a reflection of her enthusiasm for my idea. It has occurred to me on occasion that I might even be boring her, to tell you the truth. But you couldn’t tell that by her reaction. And there’s no doubt in my mind that she always holds my best interest in her heart.
I wish I could say the same of the players in the carnival of Congress, but it's clear that for too many of them, it’s just an act.
"Alan Rickman Wins Supporting Actor for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1992". Youtube. Retrieved 6 August 2022.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Somerville, N.J. (mycentraljersey.com)
Des Moines, Iowa (Ames Tribune, amestrib.com)
Palm Springs, Calif. (Palm Springs Desert Sun, desertsun.com)
The Everglades, Fla. (Sarasota Herald Tribune, heraldtribune.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes on some Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Teens lead research on climate change, presented internationally
Two teenagers in different parts of New Jersey who met at an all-state choir performance two years ago have created a non-profit focused on climate change research that has presented research at an international conference in Japan. Ricardo Kaulessar reports for NorthJersey.com that William Song for Fort Lee and Aadithya Srinivasan of Edison now have chapters of their EcoHarmony not only in New Jersey, but also in New York, Singapore and China, and in August presented research virtually at the STATPHYS28 conference on statistical physics in Tokyo. “We're using artificial intelligence, specifically like recurrent neural networks, to analyze policy information, health impacts, et cetera,” Srinivasan said. “Basically, it analyzes the language that is used in climate and health policy.”
Legislators want to require schools to show anti-abortion video
A bill advancing in the Iowa legislation would require schools to show students a computer-generated video detailing the stages of pregnancy that medical experts say is flawed, but which is similar to a video developed by an anti-abortion group. Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register reports that the proposal that has wide support in the Republican-controlled legislature would require the video to be shown from first grade through high school — regardless of parental objections. Iowa lawmakers passed a bill last year that would ban nearly all abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The bill is currently blocked by the courts while a lawsuit is decided. The computer-generated “Meet Baby Olivia” video shows sperm swimming to an egg as the video's narrator says, “This is the moment that life begins. A new human being has come into existence.” Of course, not all fertilized eggs successfully implant in the uterus to result in pregnancy. The video's narrator also says, “At three weeks and one day, just 22 days after fertilization, Olivia's heartbeat can be detected.” Doctors say in most cases cardiac activity cannot be detected in an embryo until about six weeks gestation, and that it is in any case inaccurate to call the electrical impulses generated by the embryo's cells a heartbeat before the embryo develops a heart.
National parks got crowded again last year
Joshua Tree National Park, 130 miles east of Los Angeles, tallied a record 3.2 million visitors last year, placing a strain on the environment and facilities, writes Janet Wilson in the Palm Springs Sun. The pandemic cut attendance at all national parks, and 2022 saw a tepid rebound, which was blamed on high gasoline prices. But 2023 brought huge numbers to popular parks across the West. The data appear to indicate that reservation/permit/timed-entry systems work to alleviate the crowds somewhat, Wilson noted, but there also is impact on public lands adjoining the parks, where there are fewer protections and far less enforcement of existing rules.
New invader threatens Everglades, tony gardens of Palm Beach
In 2022, farmers raising row crops in the rich muck soils near the Everglades — cucumbers, squash, beans, peppers — noticed curling leaves, stippling, scabbing and stunted growth. Kimberly Miller, a veteran journalist for the Palm Beach Post, notes that there has been a rare success story, for now, in the fight against an invasive species: the thrips parvispinus. It’s a nearly invisible, fringe-winged insect from Asia that scratches the flesh of ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables, and even tobacco, and slurps nutrition. Smaller than a pencil tip, Miller notes, it has since been identified at a garden center in Colorado, a grocery store in Georgia, and retail locations in the Carolinas, as well as in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Scientists discovered that mineral oil, sesame oil and garlic oil were effective in fighting thrips parvispinus, and a University of Florida study recommends rotating them with traditional insecticides.
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