Politics as Playacting
Politics as Playacting
Can things really go on like this? Maybe!
Published on: Dec 16, 2020  |  

Editor's Note: Welcome to a Wisdom of Crowds "Debate." The goal is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through the tensions and contradictions in real time. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.

Shadi, you said something to me on the podcast three weeks ago that really struck me. And it came up again in last week’s episode with Andrew Sullivan. It had to do with Trump voters rejecting the results of the 2020 election. Direct quote from the older pod:

How much does that matter in practice? It’s one thing for someone on the street to say ‘I voted for Trump and I think the election was fraudulent.’ But then they go about their daily life, and they kind of live with a Biden administration. They’re not that angry, they have some weird conspiracy theories, but life goes on.

I should note that you stressed that you’re on the fence about this, that you could just as easily be convinced that this lack of faith in democracy is catastrophic.

The reason it struck me is that it’s plausible in exactly that way that stings us nerds most: it suggests we’re hopelessly obsessed with things that just don’t matter. I in particular have been wringing my hands about stuff like “legitimacy.” Maybe it’s not that legitimacy doesn’t matter, but rather that I have been talking about it in far too theoretical a way. Maybe a true crisis of legitimacy comes only when you pair a sense of privation, or a sense of being serially wronged, with a sense that the person wronging you is some kind of usurper.

Otherwise, perhaps in our modern state, where one is mostly left alone, politics is just a part-time distraction, and our system can take plenty of partisanship and grumbling about dirty tricks without coughing up anything resembling a revolution or a civil war.

I have no idea.


I have been on the fence about this—and I tried to convey some of my sense of being torn in this previous piece—but the way you've framed it here, Damir, is persuading me to be perhaps less torn. If 70 percent of Trump voters believe the election was "rigged," it should make us nervous. More than that, it's dispiriting to think that so many could think such a thing. But how much does it matter? In the oldentimes, 70 percent of any given population could believe something, and it wouldn't matter because we wouldn't know.

But I don't think it's just that. Something genuinely new has been injected into American politics on a mass scale—what Ross Douthat by way of Joan Didion calls "dreampolitik"—and that something makes it challenging to discern what is worth paying close attention to and caring about. It was always there, to be sure, but playacting can be practiced by more people more of the time and in more ways. This type of online performance is "real" insofar as real people are deciding to act politically and are pressing keys and not merely introducing thoughts into the ether through sheer mind power. But this kind of politics, certainly in effect but also sometimes in intent, actually does substitute for real politics (it might not be a 1:1 substitution but it doesn't need to be).

In some ways, it's even worse than substitution. It can actually wrest away what starts off as serious politics and transform it into playacting—as we saw over the summer where what could have led to major policy changes on local policing, sentencing guidelines, and criminal justice reform instead became consumed by woke performance art. The problem, of course, with local politics is that it's relatively boring, while performance is fun precisely because it's about the performer.

Online politics overwhelming "real" politics is unfortunate when it comes to the kinds of structural reforms the country actually needs, but it might be our saving grace when it comes to the other party. It's remarkable to me, as I noted on our simulcast with Andrew Sullivan, that 70 percent of 73 million of people apparently don't believe Biden actually won yet don't seem particularly angry or annoyed by it. If an election was truly stolen and democracy was about to die, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect millions of Americans mobilizing and launching something resembling a national protest movement? They're not. The polling on Republican refusal to accept the election outcome does not measure intensity of feeling. So far it seems that that the feelings aren't particularly intense.

At the same time, I do realize that if you take this posture to its logical conclusion, it can result in a pose: does anything really matter anymore? I suppose the answer to the question is that tangible policy outcomes are what we still can assess with some precision. A policy gets passed, or a state implements a new childhood education initiative for the first time, or an attempted Muslim ban gets blocked by the Supreme Court, and then we can measure that instead of falling back on important but ultimately fuzzy concepts like norms that may not apply the way we think they do because too much has changed in the way Americans act politically.

We've only been living in this world—exacerbated by the semi-permanent onlineness of the COVID era—for a few years now. We don't know how this works or how this ends. But I'm tempted by the notion that having all of these online outlets—a growing number of people seem to spend insane amounts of time on the new social media app Clubhouse—allows people to blunt the depression, dissatisfaction, and righteous anger that might otherwise be directed in various destructive ways in the "real" world. The real world, for now, is the world that matters or at least the one that matters most. I say "for now," because, who knows? And nothing really matters anyway: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


So as we were going back and forth, not only Putin himself, but even Mitch McConnell has acknowledged that Biden is our next president. I guess we need to see now just how much of Trump's base stands by their man even as the bulk of reality turns against them. Or, to put it more precisely, it remains to be seen how many retain this set of beliefs as an important organizing principle in their lives.

Still, I'm uneasy.

I've framed the Trump years—even the later, most destructive part of Trump's term—as more symptom than cause. I was arguging on last week's episode that what we're seeing is the latest manifestation of the hollowing out of our elites that has been ongoing for decades. Our meritocratic system is churning out a feckless aristocracy, and no republic can survive for long with such useless, callow people calling the shots.

Andrew Sullivan responded that it doesn't have to be either/or—that Trump is at least as much an accelerant as symptom, and that we ought to be concerned about both facets of the man. The toxicity of Trump as a political actor—as an individual—is important and real. His behavior, and the elites' reaction to it, have conspired to undermine the cohesiveness and credibility of our whole order. And yet, if disaffected Trump supporters just more or less shrug and go on with their lives, maybe there's less to worry about than we thought?

This is why I still think it's better to think of him primarily as a symptom, and be worried on those terms. Kookiness is perhaps the background noise of American democracy—as you say, in the pre-polling era, large numbers of people probably believed nutty things and it didn't make a difference. But Trump was never so much a manifestation of the kookiness as he was the product of a broader and growing vacuum at the commanding heights of our society. America has always been a wild and crazy place, but it has nevertheless managed to find sound leadership in times of crisis.

And while Biden himself is handling the transition in what I think is just the right way, the elites surrounding him remain hollow and non-credible. And that, I think, actually does matter, and will continue to matter going forward.


America, as you remind us, is a wild and crazy place. I don't think anyone would describe Sweden as a wild and crazy place (with perhaps one exception). Can America be other than what it is? Perhaps, but then we'd presumably lose the good things that come with being crazy, or, more charitably, "exceptional."

I recently read Bruno Maçães' History Has Begun, a fascinating book that takes the concept of "dreampolitik" once step further. “Perhaps alone among all contemporary civilizations," he writes, "America regards reality as an enemy to be defeated.” This can obviously be a bad thing, as we've seen in the fight against COVID, but it can also be an engine of rejuvenation and creativity. Reality, after all, can be depressing, and it may not always be a good idea to merely accept things as they are or to take comfort in "the world as it is."

If America is wild and crazy, kooky, a truly modern creation that isn't bound to the gravity of history, then it may be better, as Maçães suggests, to understand America in "the framework of empty historical space, an empty canvas of creation, where everything or almost everything is prima facie possible."

Which is to say that I think historical analogues—the obsession with Weimar and violating Godwin's Law may never quite end—will not be as helpful as we might wish them to be. If history doesn't repeat itself, then does it really rhyme? To say nothing of the fact that, to quote my bête noire Henry Kissinger, “the history of things that didn’t happen has never been written.”

— Shadi