Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Send in the Clowns: Political Theatre and the Current Political Climate

It has been nearly a month since Election Night and, for many who had hoped for a continuing journey along the path of social and economic progress, a continued process of stumbling along the slow, tortuous path of racial reconciliation, things have not noticeably improved. The news media, having discovered a new power source composed of the fusion of fear, anger, and hopelessness, has continued to report--in excruciating detail--of the ins and outs, the ups and downs, and the tweets and trials of our President-elect Donald Trump. Trump was the winner of the so-called "Republican clown car" primary and somehow managed to amass enough votes in enough places--or deny them to Hilary Clinton--that he is poised to be confirmed by the Electoral College as our forty-fifth President.

There have been many theories about why Trump won. Some count it as the last gasp of a dying white evangelical voting block desperate to turn back the clock to when institutional Christianity occupied the chair at the head of the American political table. Others say it was the white working-class voter who is tired of seeing his or her job outsourced to China, India, or Mexico leaving near-ghost towns across the rust belt. They want President Trump to bring back those manufacturing jobs and "Make America Great Again." Of course, there is the white supremicist fringe whose assistance with Trump's ascendancy has ripped the scab off the racial turmoil that has been at work under the surface like hot lava, exploding in killings and protests. School children are afraid of what their fellow students will say and do, now that racism has apparently become politically and socially acceptable. Yet Trump received double-digit percentages of minority votes and did particularly well among young, white, well-educated people.

Others have commented on all of the above, but as much as all of that had something to do with it, I think we overlook one crucial factor: the rise of political theater. You have perhaps seen it on C-SPAN: A lone senator or congressional representative stands in a nearly-empty chamber and pontificates about this or that issue, knowing full well that he or she will never need to cast a deciding vote on the issue but there to register their support or opposition "for the record"--and for commercials in their campaign for reelection. The reason that Congress's approval rating is in the single digits is that nearly everyone across this country knows that Congress has largely abandoned the compromise-laden, win-some-lose-some, rough-and-tumble task of making laws and governing our nation for the far more lucrative (in both actual dollars and political capital) and far more enjoyable task of starring in a play of their own creation, funded by corporations and wealthy patrons and finally paid for by the audience, the American people, who are required to purchase season passes every April 15.

Frankly, we treat our elections as entertaining sporting events--with just as much consequence as voting for members of the baseball All Star Team. Actually, the All Star Team election is probably treated with more seriousness--at least we attempt to chose the best players based on performance! In the political arena, we just know who we like--or who we hate less--and choose them to come back on the political stage for another act. It is no surprise, then, that our next President is skilled not with statecraft or governing acumen, but with entertainment and misdirection. This is the final result of our tolerance, even encouragement of polarizing political theater--we've finally elected a clown who is selecting more clowns. Now, I know that they aren't pure clowns, pure entertainers. Many of Trump's appointments have serious government experience. Yet the media presents them as clowns. "Wow, you think HE was bad, look at THIS one!"

I know both Hillary Clinton supporters and Donald Trump supporters, and I somewhat sympathize with both. But the way to stop this never-ending political play is not to simply boo the current actors off the stage, it is rather to lower the curtain on the whole charade. Not to leave the "theatre" (cease voting and paying attention), but to refuse to watch the play. To be extremely skeptical of media hype and characterizations. To hold our senators, congressional representatives, state legislators, and even city council members and county supervisors accountable for the answer to this question: How are you addressing issues of environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability for the good of the country rather than for just your re-election? Want to get money out of politics? Refuse to attend the political play. Ask politicians what they've done, how they've had to debate, discuss, and compromise on a range of issues. In other words, judge our elected officials on how well they govern, not how well they act.

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