Last week, many Americans may have found themselves irked, even angry, at a spectacular display taking place on the floor of the United States Senate during the vote for a bill establishing a $15 federal minimum wage.
The act that prompted the acute backlash was an enthusiastic performance by senior Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who accompanied a “no” vote against a living wage for workers on the front lines of a pandemic with a curtsy and a thumbs down. On the same day, Sen. Sinema reportedly brought a large chocolate cake onto the Senate floor for staffers who worked overnight during a meticulous readthrough of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
While not exactly her “let them eat cake” moment, the theater of Sinema’s actions the day of the vote reveals a nonetheless sinister pattern of behavior in bourgeois American politics — that is to say, holding a bouquet in one hand and a knife in the other. As a matter of fact, American politics today are dominated by a spectacle in which random acts of kindness, courage or quirk cover an undergirding project of violence and theft. The value of the dramatic crudeness with which Sinema cast her vote against higher wages for frontline workers is that the senator laid bare the brutality of bourgeois American political theater.
What is political theater? Michael Crowley of The New Republic magazine defines the term and its synonyms, the most famous of which is the pejorative “Kabuki dance,” as “a performance, in which nothing substantive is done.” Although this definition suffices to describe many aspects of American politics, it fails to account for the fact that political theater is often extremely substantive; the substance, however, is what the people are not meant to see. In essence, it is propaganda.
In Sen. Sinema’s case, last week’s revue was a poorly-acted, self-directed curtsy and midnight snack for Senate staffers. The substance — the work behind the scenes and between the lines — was allowing a crisis of capitalism to continue to plow through the working class whose economic safety net is unravelling due to a volatile market economy and the high costs of housing, healthcare and education that come with it. This is nothing short of complicity in violence, as almost 11 million families face eviction.
Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed resolute to “persist” on the fight for a $15 minimum wage in a press conference on Thursday, Mar. 11, the sheer inability of Democrats to deliver on the promises of their platform renders this resolution less than sincere. Speaker Pelosi, too, is engaging in propagandistic political theater.
The examples continue: While both efforts to impeach Donald Trump were without a doubt contentious, ripping tearful or chest-thumping performances from members of the Democratic and Republican parties alike, the material ramifications of impeaching or even convicting Trump were, to put it generously, trivial. To liberals, making a mockery of the United States’ bourgeois, settler-colonial Constitution may be egregious; however, in a macroscopic scale, this is the equivalent at enforcing the use of coasters in a burning house.
Who was held accountable for the other crimes concurring with the Trump administration? Was there a House probe into the bombing of Afghan and Somalian civilians, whether under Trump or Obama? Did any government official face repercussions for the extrajudicial detention of migrant families and the coerced sterilization of detainees in Georgia? Will Puerto Rico ever see restitution for the criminal neglect of its American colonizers whenever a natural disaster crosses the austerity-riddled island? For the time being, the answer is a resounding no.
The same is true of the theater of President Joe Biden, or the highly anticipated revival of Obama-era governance and diplomacy. Biden’s calls for unity and healing between fractured niches of the country, passionate as they may sound, are utterly heartless in effect. Unity and convalescence sound idyllic, appealing to a fundamental desire for harmony in a world muddled with contradictions. What does unity mean, however, when the contradictions between oppressive systems and oppressed subjects can only resolve in the subjugation, if not wholesale destruction, of the less powerful group?
Demanding compromise between workers and the capitalists extracting the value they create; between Black and indigenous peoples and reactionary police forces and penitentiaries; and between women, queer and trans people, and state legislatures populated by misogynists is a futile effort, if not actively malicious. Calls for unity under racial capitalism and patriarchy are not substantive; they propaganda; they are theater.
To its credit, the Biden administration has made no placative calls for togetherness on the world stage — save with allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Instead, he orders illegal drone strikes in Syria to mount political pressure on Iran, and continues to support Saudi militarism under the pretense of helping “Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity” (Vox). Here, Biden is putting on an imperial drama meant to conceal the U.S.’ violent hegemony in West Asian and North African countries — or as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken puts it, “leading with our values.”
Until the U.S. pays reparations for the genocidal conditions for which it is responsible in Yemen under the Obama administration — one which has wrought havoc to the tune of 230,000 deaths and currently places millions of Yemenis at risk of acute malnutrition — the foreign policy of the Biden administration will be little more than posturing.
Of course, to meaningfully apologize for the atrocities of US imperialism would bankrupt the country. U.S. sanctions on Venezuela alone have cost the Latin American country at least $38 billion since 2016 — how does one comprehend the payment due for other recent crimes like the illegal occupation and destabilization of Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan? The answer, bluntly, is incomprehensible. Naturally, the United States will continue to adhere to its model of imperial hegemony, exploiting phraseology such as “supporting our allies,” “promoting democracy” and “leading the free world,” to hide more militarism and exploitation of Black and brown workers around the world.
Whether it be domestic or international, the United States is the most prolific actor known to date. It plays a theater with no seats, unilaterally enacting a regime of violence against workers and nations subjected to empire. Little good fortune comes for those who critique it. At home, they are incarcerated; abroad, they are bombed. America’s kind words to the citizens of the globe are without exception undercut by what comes afterward; the task of Americans is to decipher and organize against these actions.
Political theater and propaganda are almost as ubiquitous as the nation state; that it will be eradicated as a practice even subsequent to a radical transformation of society is a highly improbable outcome. Although this is a bleak reflection of our current material conditions, we must dare to struggle to the conditions in which the administrators of our governments say what they mean and mean what they say; the power of propaganda lies in dissuading us from this goal. The solution, which is no doubt revolutionary, will manifest through the organizing efforts of the perceptive individuals of today who know that the oppressed people of the world deserve more than meager concessions and unscrupulous leaders; and although I am habitually cynical about the future of American politics, I am happy to inform that many of the change-makers of tomorrow are here at the University of Connecticut.