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Commentary Government & Politics

Judge Steven Platt: Closing the Curtain on the Political Theater of the Absurd

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks at a news conference on the “Fire Fauci Act” on Capitol Hill last year. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.

By Steven I. Platt

The writer is a Senior Circuit Court Judge.

Most of the “late-breaking news” on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” the “breaking news” announced during the new fourth hour of “Morning Joe,” and the opinions expressed on Fox News have a familiar ring to them. Even the guests and conversations on the network morning shows and the evening news sound like reruns of shows shown the day or the week before. That is true even if occasionally some new fact is injected into the coverage.

The reason is that so much of what is labeled as “news” is really nothing more than political theater, presented to the public watching and listening by insecure politicians in order to gain their attention or even affection when they feel the need to feel their love.

I used to think that this political theater was used by politicians, particularly legislators and executives, to gain acceptance, or at least acquiescence to politically controversial decisions. Thinking that, I was much more tolerant of it than I am today, because I had convinced myself that this theater was “the price we paid for living in a constitutional representative democracy” or as some of my more elitist friends and writers describe it, “The messy workings of the political marketplace.”

What I see happening now is that the purpose for this political theater, which at times borders on “Theater of the Absurd,” is to pander or reinforce the allegiance/loyalty, even adoration of whichever portion of the political actor’s base of support they think they need to feel at the time. Its goal is not to gain acceptance of work on substantive legislation or executive actions. Rather, its purpose is limited to gaining or perpetuating personal power and ambition of the politician whose identity and self-esteem is dependent on attaining or retaining the office and/or image they project to their followers.

Unfortunately, that allegiance bears no relationship to any substantive policy-related work or legislation. That is why disciplining disciples of the faction of either the extreme left or right by removing them from congressional committees that do the substantive work on legislation is, at best, a futile gesture which the individual elected official could care less about, because he/she is not interested in the work of the committee. Rather, the congresswoman is motivated to parade the action as a badge of honor to provide her individual bonafides as a non-elite victim.

This political reality, if left unchecked by political leaders who are willing to directly and persistently confront with dialogue and common sense the mistrust and anger of a significant number (30-40%) of the people who can either elect or unelect them, threatens the freedoms that are the very foundation of our democracy and with it the quality of all of our lives. So if we can, we better find a way to keep our institutions strong enough to butt up against this culture and counter the talking points being used to weaken those institutions and our democracy in favor of a more authoritarian regime. Witness the authoritarian governments and leaders emerging as a result of fairly and democratically elected leaders turning populist once in office in order to perpetuate their own power and longevity all over the world.

Right here in the good old USA, clearly the most dangerous threat to our constitutional representative democracy — what The Economist magazine refers to as “The Trumpian Right” — subordinates facts and reason to tribal emotion, in the process of denigrating science and the rule of law as some sort of façade for a plot by the “Deep State” against “the people.” The use of this technique is exemplified by the continued persistent preaching that the 2020 election was stolen, despite 61 courts, including judges appointed by President Trump, finding no evidence of that whatsoever.

The extreme left is not exempt from liability for attacks on the foundations of our democracy. This group, which is numerically smaller than the “Trumpian Right,” is labeled by the same Economist magazine as the “Illiberal Left” and largely has emanated from departments of elite universities. Their agenda is a narrow one circumscribed by what their self-proclaimed spokespersons refer to as the horror of feeling “unsafe.” Their way of ensuring that they do not feel “unsafe” or otherwise have their feelings hurt is to enforce ideological purity by no-platforming speakers whose words make them feel uncomfortable, i.e., “unsafe,” and cancelling events, books and speeches that transgress on their individual and collective peace of mind.

The “Trumpian Right” and the “Illiberal Left” have a lot more in common than either of them would like to admit. They both share a deep suspicion of authority and entrenched interests. Both label those of us, who in any way, disagree with them as “enemies” to be censored or even eliminated. Compare the banning or disrupting of speakers on college campuses and town squares by extreme left with the banning of books in schools and the punishment of corporations such as Disney for speaking out on an issue, by the extreme right. Further, notice the complete silence or intentional duplicity of political leaders on both sides when their overzealous supporters act and speak out about crazy conspiracies and fantasies on the stage provided by cable, TV and the internet.

How should our responsible leaders deal with this increasingly toxic political reality which, as I have said, borders on “Theatre of the Absurd”?

Our elected leaders must not emulate the “long forgotten leader of the French Revolution” facetiously cited on more than one occasion by President John F. Kennedy. That long forgotten leader was quoted by President Kennedy as exclaiming, “There go my people. I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them.” That leader was “long forgotten,” and should be, because he thought and said things like that.

So be it for any legislator or executive who justifies his or her vote on the basis of the number of letters, emails, and telephone calls received. And if these political “shrinking violets” or cowards can’t resist that temptation, the voters who put them in their positions, under the mistaken impression that they cared about their city, state, or county at least as much as their ambition, should then pay sufficient attention to see them for what they are and vote them out.

As Felix Rohatyn, the brilliant, tough-minded businessman who did so much to save New York City in its time of crisis pointed out, “Commitment in the form of compromise is not always viewed as desirable. Indeed, at times it is viewed as downright unfashionable — we face the loss of our most precious assets all because we are cynical, self-indulgent, and unwilling to make the effort.”

Indeed, the words of arguably the founder of the modern profession of “political consulting,” the Master of Politics himself, may have provided the guidance needed to move forward. In “The Prince,” Machiavelli said:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more precious to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders among those who may do well under the new.”

Some lessons from the past masters are clearly illuminating in our present circumstances. It is therefore clear that the resolution of the important issues that our country faces will not be found by those who are content with today, apathetic toward the problem, or timid and fearful when confronted with any ideas that have not been poll tested or used as a means of getting applause at a political rally or to raise money. Let us hope that our leaders willingly and enthusiastically accept the challenges that lie ahead of them and use the skills that brought them to their current positions of power and trust in our nation to implement change that is rational and serves all of the people, not just their individual consuming interests in maintaining their power and the positions they value more than their integrity and their country.