Politics & Policy

Politics-As-Theater in South Carolina

If you are a legislator and the words “tearful plea” find themselves attached to your name in the headlines, you are doing it wrong.

Jenny Horne is a Republican representative in the South Carolina state house who on Thursday gave a weepy speech in which she implored her colleagues to vote to take down the Confederate battle flag, which became a focal point of sustained criticism right around the time the state started electing Republican governors instead of the Democrats who hoisted that flag in the first place.

Her sobbing theatrics constitute an excellent example of what is wrong with American governance, as does the subject of her incontinence, for that matter. There is the usual sentimental personalization of the issue — Horne demanding that her fellow legislators vote her way or insult “the widow of Senator Pinckney and his two young daughters” — and the second-rate thespianism: “I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to” — raising her voice to a shriek —“do something meaningful.”  

What’s happening is the opposite of meaningful.

Governance, properly practiced, is not performance art — or not merely that, at least.

Those who would see the Confederate flag treated as a historical relic have the better end of the argument — it is a historical relic, and Governor Nikki Haley will not be the first nor the most significant Republican to oversee its lowering, President Abraham Lincoln and General U. S. Grant being in the vanguard.

But it is an argument that is literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!) about nothing more than symbolism. The importance of such symbolism is not zero, but it is not very high, either: Some well-meaning and decent people’s feelings are hurt by the reverence shown to the rebel flag, some well-meaning and decent people’s feelings will be hurt by its furling, and a few peckerwood trash racists will run about bawling with their dresses over their heads.

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Not one person’s life in South Carolina will be substantially improved by this exercise in cost-free semiotics. This is the sort of controversy that politicians simply adore. There is a whole Divine Comedy’s worth of wailing and condemnation, but nothing real at stake.

Governance, properly practiced, is not performance art — or not merely that, at least. But the indispensable political talent is learning how to get out in front of a parade. Hillary Rodham Clinton was to the right of Dick Cheney on gay marriage until about five minutes before the recent Supreme Court decision on the matter, but she did her level best to make the decision about her — to claim as a victory the advancement of a cause she has not actually supported. President Obama did much the same thing. In reality, the event is the event is the event; in politics, the event is how daft old Hillary Rodham Clinton feels about it. In much the same way, the murder of Kate Steinle is no longer about Kate Steinle — it’s about Donald Trump.

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The thing about cheap theatrics is, they’re cheap — and they cheapen. The smell of gunsmoke is still fresh in the nostrils of those who survived the Emanuel AME slaughter, the widows about whom the politicians claim to be primarily concerned are still in mourning, and what do we hear from Horne et al.?

“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” That it isn’t about them is something that simply does not occur to the special snowflakes/psychotic narcissists who pursue political careers.

RELATED: ’Disappearing’ the Confederacy

Horne isn’t even the most grotesque of these ghoulish vaudevilleans. Joe Madison, a talk-radio host on SiriusXM’s Urban View — he calls himself the “Black Eagle” — this week invited South Carolina legislator Marlon Kimpson (D., Charleston) on the program to strategize about how the massacre at Emanuel AME might be converted into money. The flag battle having been more or less won, Madison argued, the next step is securing racial set-asides in an upcoming highway bill. Not just construction, he said, because construction contracts “end at a date certain.” What’s really needed is a bite of services and concessions, which “go on forever.” The cynicism of their conversation was bracing — this is the sort of plotting that one assumes goes on in the smoke-filled backrooms of popular cliché, not in public, on the radio, for normal, functional adults to recoil from in disgust.

#related#Whether the coffers are being filled with political capital or old-fashioned capital-capital, the mechanism is the same, and it will be immediately familiar to those who know Aristotle’s Politics or the psychological theory of advertising: “create an anxiety relievable by a purchase,” “purchase” here being understood broadly enough to encompass political and business transactions both.

Critically inclined observers will notice that the catharsis — hauling down a flag, racializing contract rules — need not have anything to do with the actual tragedy, in this case the murder of nine people by a disgusting lowlife. (One of God’s little ironies is that white supremacists are themselves the best evidence against the theory of white supremacy.) The underlying realities matter less and less as there are more and more opportunities to get paid behind the drama.

That’s the genius of politics-as-theater.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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