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Performance in Politics

Social media is a curious thing.

I tend to scroll through my Facebook newsfeed as if it were an actual newsfeed, as if it represents some conveyor belt of factoids springing from an unbiased, universal source of world events.

But let’s be real: Facebook is not a news source. It is a reflection of things I click on and “like” because of something called cookies that I’ll pretend to understand because I’m a millennial and I’m supposed to understand how the Internet works.

In reality, my news feed is about 50% cute animal videos, 40% politics, 5% celebrity gossip, and 5% invitations to events to which I probably respond “Going” (and then probably don’t actually go).

That “40% politics” estimation is definitely not made up of CNN articles and full-length interviews with the candidates. The political media on my newsfeed exists on a spectrum that ranges from tumblresque memes to John Oliver rants. And I’m seeing almost all of it because someone else has shared it, not because I follow the original source.

I watch every debate. I have read thoroughly each candidate’s website. I have my own opinions about each policy. And yet, in my free time, I mostly absorb “facts” about this presidential race in compilation videos of Trump offending people.

Every time I like or share one of those anti-Trump highlight reels, I am feeding into the climate that has allowed him to progress this far in the first place. For every liberal newsfeed that looks like mine, there is an equally conservative newsfeed out there that is spewing the same hateful rhetoric against Hillary.

There has always been an element of performance in our political system (if you don’t agree, try sitting through a full trial some time). A ritualistic sensibility exists in every debate, every speech, every public appearance. But what happens when that appropriate element of performance is catapulted into full-on celebrity culture?

In the eyes of the general public, the presidential candidates have become celebrity-status performers who represent America, rather than professional politicians.

Just look at our current president. How many of your friends could explain 3 major policy changes Obama has enacted? Could you? But have you seen him reading MeanTweets on Jimmy Kimmel? Have you seen the video of him and the bee on Easter? Of him taking selfies?

Obama isn’t even out of office yet and there is already a feature film and a Netflix original series dramatizing his life.

The political climate in our country has shifted away from actual legislation and towards the quotidian performance of political figures. That’s why it’s no surprise that Trump is a legitimate candidate for the presidency. Obviously Hillary blazes past him in every arena that actually matters (policy, public speaking, decency, etc.), but Trump had the celebrity-card before the race even started. His performance as the “angry, rich, white man” is convincing, and he has been able to capitalize on the consistency of that character, ignoring the instability of his moral character.

This election has been called a joke, a circus, a comedy, a tragedy – all theatrical terms. In any case, it relies heavily on audience participation (how many of your friends have already posted pictures of themselves mailing in ballots?). My challenge for the rest of this season will be to engage in rhetoric that evaluates the performance of the candidates as political figures, rather than as celebrities or characters in a show. It will be difficult, since the reductive tendency of social media is to distill complex issues into a GIF and a hashtag.



Politics may be rooted in performance, but it is up to voters to separate useful reportage of performance (an action, task, or operation, seen in terms of how successfully it was performed) and conflated, clickbait reportage of performance (a display of exaggerated behavior).


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