Performative Politics


Much has been made of the urban-rural split and the vote breakdown for Brexit.

Broadly speaking: many Londoners and urbanites wanted to remain in the EU, while many country-dwellers and small city folks wanted to leave.

Plenty of convincing analyses have been made of the socioeconomic reasons for this, but one aspect which hasn’t been focused on is the success of figures like Nigel Farage in emphasizing an everyman image despite rather high pedigree backgrounds in the legal and financial world.

Liberal media figures brayed with outrage and scorn at photos of Farage riding a golden elevator with Donald Trump and flashing a thumbs up. Who is this bizarre British guy claiming to speak for the common man while he’s dazzled by diamonds in New York?

What passes under the surface of these pseudo-controversies is a much larger issue, namely: the principal cultural posturing of the political right and left and how it’s used to manipulate people.

Broadly speaking, today’s right involves the ruling class aping the mannerisms, speech, attitudes and concerns of the working class in order to gain political power, while today’s left involves the ruling class imitating and performing intersectional victim rituals in order to gain and maintain power.

Just remember, Meghan Markle is oppressed, and Nigel Farage is just a bloke who wants a pint.

The left routinely turns a blind eye to their own well-credentialed professional victims from academia and government who go on television nightly to complain about racism and oppression.

The right routinely turns a blind eye to their well-heeled leaders complaining about red-tape-draped bureaucrats just after coming out of a government meeting making life harder for working people.

My purpose here is not to point out hypocrisy or a lack of purity in political ideals. Every ideology gets a little messier when the rubber meets the road.

The point is to highlight the parameters or context within which postmodern Western politics operates: the sublime object of ideology for our political systems. It’s understood that you have to sell a little bit of your soul to get to the top or, to put it another way, it’s understood that there’s an inevitable disconnect between the governed and the governing.

It’s not that we truly believe rich politicians are just like us or that the esteemed literature professor from Cambridge is a victim of misgendering: it’s that we choose to suspend disbelief because it allows us to advance a performative or convenient identity for ourselves. An identity we can plug into various narratives that are already humming along full of foundation money and media momentum.

It’s not to say that Farage is insincere in his political views or that Markle hasn’t suffered racist harassment; the point is to emphasize how much we as voters and citizens choose to participate in performative politics even in our individual lives. We’re living in an image-based age, and many of us are more hooked on living up to the promises and stories behind images and ideas than getting down into the dirt of reality.

We are amusing ourselves to death and crying crocodile tears, because we know that authenticity is a fleeting commodity in large abstract systems no longer closely tied by kith and kin or shared history and ideology.

As Matthew Walther wrote in an insightful piece for the Week looking at the artificiality of the US political system:

“The basic organizing principle of our society is not self-government, but the amoral facilitation of any activity that increases the price of stock in publicly traded corporations. In the last decade or so it has become clear that the only remaining truly viable commercial enterprise is the digital provision of entertainment and what are loosely described as ‘services’:

Netflix, pornography, Spicy Chicken McNuggets delivered to your door to spare you the trouble of having to drive a bloated plastic gasoline-powered computer up to the store window in order to receive your specimen of mechanically separated meat, dextrose, and sodium acid pyrophosphate advertised on what you still quaintly refer to as your ‘phone.’”

I’m afraid that the UK is not far off from a similar scenario, and COVID has only intensified it. We can’t fault politicians for existing within power paradigms that our societies have created and fostered. Instead, we should be working to change the parameters of our politics and opening them up to different classes and folks who don’t wear white collars or go to law school.

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported for Reuters, BBC, the Hill, the American Conservative and more. His main interests are culture, religion and geopolitics. His upcoming book Cultworld will be out later this year.