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Why Does American Politics Feel Like Theater? | Focus

Over-promise and under-deliver has become D.C.’s unspoken rule. When politics is a performance, of course the show must go on, but how does it end?

In exploring The Origins of Totalitarianism, political theorist Hannah Arendt hit upon, among others, a common thread: the devolution of politics into meaningless, mindless theatrical performances. As politics degraded, people sought an escape and found it on the stage of real theaters. About Austria-Hungary, the powder keg of World War One, she writes,

While the state played an ever narrower and emptier representative role, political representation tended to become a kind of theatrical performance...until in Austria the theater itself became the focus of national life...The theatrical quality of the political world had become so patent that the theater could appear as the realm of reality.

In America, too, we find ourselves in an age of political theatrics. The government of the United States is sclerotic to the point that it’s not just incapable of enacting legislation, but even of effectively implementing or executing what little legislation is enacted. At the same time, the back-and-forth of politics that takes place on our television screens or on social media has morphed into a harrowing slate of wall-to-wall 24-hour coverage, endless commentary and analysis, and the seeping of politics into every nook and cranny of our daily lives. Politicians gleefully engage in the game; a viral tweet or well-placed TV hit is good for the perpetual campaign fundraising cycle.

That politics is more salient in American life than ever before is not in itself a bad thing. Awareness of the myriad deficiencies in our democracy is a necessary precondition for rectifying them. It is not, however, sufficient for that purpose, especially when media coverage of politics is deeply toxic and, more importantly, when what politicians say they will do and are doing is entirely divorced from reality.

There’s always going to be a tension between a candidate’s campaign platform and what they actually do when in office. With short election cycles, onerous parliamentary procedures—even absent an obstacle like the filibuster—and not-always-reconcilable interests between the country’s 535 legislators, the promises of “candidate” Joe Biden, for example, and the actions of “president” Joe Biden cannot be one and the same. Expecting otherwise is naive. But when a famous saying like Mario Cuomo’s “campaign in poetry, govern in prose” is more accurately rendered as “campaign in poetry, govern in scribbles,” it’s a very poor sign for the health of a democracy. Elections are predicated on the idea that there will be at least some cause-and-effect relationship between the expression of the popular will and the institutions tasked with realizing it.

An excessively theatrical politics—relying on the image of an effective government while in substance that efficacy is absent—should alarm conservatives as much as it might progressives. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton articulate repeatedly the principle that an energetic and vigorous federal government is required for healthy politics. Regardless of whether or not they would support such an expansive government as we have today, even in the crudest originalist interpretation of the Federalist Papers, it’s clear that the Founders wanted a government that would be able to produce results when necessary. Regardless of disagreements about standards for when government should act, action will from time to time be necessary, and citizens should expect that the government will execute its obligations effectively.

At this point some examples are necessary to properly illuminate the political theater problem. In discussions of the disconnect between Joe Biden’s ambitious policy platform and his actual governance, the elephant in the room is—as Spectacles has time and again noted—the filibuster. Without retreading too much ground, it has become quite obvious that the filibuster poses an enormous obstacle to a government that can accomplish effective political action.

Take, for example, Mr. Biden’s “Build Back Better” reconciliation bill, which contains a proposed spending amount of $3.5 trillion, along with a series of tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans. At this point, the filibuster is not what holds the bill back directly; some Democrats in the House and the Senate don’t seem comfortable with the prescribed spending. Yet because the bill was written to pass through the complicated budget reconciliation process, which allows it to pass with 50 votes rather than the de facto 60-vote threshold imposed by the filibuster, it’s a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of legislation. From paid family leave to subsidies for electric vehicles, and universal pre-kindergarten to drug-pricing reform, the bill constitutes a host of Democratic Party priorities rolled into one.

And the Biden administration, as well as progressive allies in the House and Senate, are happy to advertise it as such. There’s an underlying “promises made, promises kept” premise to the bill, and the bill’s supporters are touting it as the most significant expansion of the social safety net since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

But the theater, the grand gesture towards a transformation of American society for the better, rings somewhat hollow. Much of the legislation, partially but not solely because the budget reconciliation process is confined to budget items, is a rearrangement of the United States’ hopelessly complicated tax code. That may have some beneficial effects, but government programs embedded in the tax code tend both to be less perceptible to citizens and less transformative in their effects. For example, the Child Tax Credit—a temporary COVID relief policy set to be extended in the reconciliation bill—has fallen short of the sweeping claim that it would reduce child poverty in the country by half. For this reason it isn’t clear that Americans should expect that the paid family leave proposal would bring the country in line with the rest of the developed world in guaranteeing such social goods.

Because of the filibuster, Democrats have written their landmark legislation—perhaps their last opportunity to do something of this magnitude for a decade or more—in a way that will necessarily blunt its effects. All the while, they are advertising the legislation as transformative. Without asserting that the bill will be meaningless, it is entirely plausible that Democrats are overpromising, in no small part because a theatrical politics has shaped their incentives to say they are accomplishing a lot.

Another short example illustrates the issue effectively. When Joe Biden was on the campaign trail, a principle prong of his pitch to American voters was a more humane immigration system. But when a large group of Haitian migrants—who left their home country after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake—arrived at the US-Mexico border last week, they were treated by Customs and Border Patrol officers with anything but humanity. Instead of pursuing comprehensive immigration reform—as Mr. Biden promised during his presidential campaign—what we saw was the Biden administration deporting Haitians to their home country, which is wracked by crises the United States has played no small part in cultivating. Meanwhile, Press Secretary Jen Psaki bemoaned how heart-wrenching the situation was and promised that the border patrol officers who abused migrants at the border would no longer be permitted to ride horses.

It’s all theater, and this episode in particular shows how politicians believe that as long as they can take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, that they can be conscientious in rhetoric while lazy—even cruel—in practice.

But it’s not just the filibuster or the limitations of policy design that give the lie to a politics of theater. It is the very administrative incapacity of the state that’s at the heart of the issue. In response to COVID and its associated economic downturn, then-President Donald Trump and Congress enacted a supplemental unemployment insurance program. While the program was undeniably a major help to millions of Americans, primary responsibility for its administration was delegated to underfunded state bureaucracies, resulting in major backups and wait times. Millions more Americans failed to get the benefits due to them. While prominent Democrats and Republicans alike fell over themselves thanking essential workers, and claiming that no one should fall through the cracks as a result of the pandemic, criminally underdeveloped state capacity ensured that, in fact, many did. Even when legislation is enacted, the state is ill-equipped to fully meet its objectives.

A similar situation unfolded over rental assistance and evictions. After the Supreme Court struck down an executive eviction moratorium, Congress and the White House played an extensive blame game over who bore responsibility. As the drama went on, a program to provide financial assistance to tenants delivered a mere fraction of its allotted funds. As of Friday, it had only delivered 17 percent. That the government—both Congress and the White House—has proven itself impotent in practice even as it preaches a high degree of care on the political stage is a highly disturbing sign.

All of this is not to say that theater and rhetoric are simply bad or have no place in politics. Substance and style can and often must be effectively combined. Beneficial or restorative social policy, when combined with rhetoric declaring its benefits and reminding voters that government works for them, can do wonders for instilling confidence in a democracy. But Americans frequently don’t even know that they’re receiving benefits, and when those benefits are publicly promised but only partially received, citizens are understandably frustrated. And this all goes without saying that a rotten system of campaign finance and lobbying encourages the maintenance of such a status quo. American policymaking is burdened by a feedback loop of poor policy design, crippled administrative capacity, and sclerotic institutions that makes it easier to go for style, to proclaim substance, and then to hope that things work out just well enough to muddle along.

Perhaps we can muddle along. Maybe the deficient status quo isn’t quite bad enough to snap us out of our stupor; maybe the theater will remain convincing enough to drive Americans to the polls every two or four years. But the future, to the extent that it can be mapped out, implies a series of challenges equal or greater in scope to the pandemic. It’s unlikely that a government, as Hannah Arendt wrote, that plays “an ever narrower and emptier representative role” will be able to sustain itself through theater alone.

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Further Reading

  • The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt.
  • The Hidden Welfare State: Tax Expenditures and Social Policy in The United States, by Christopher Howard.
  • "Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era," by Suzanne Mettler in Perspectives on Politics.

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