Performative Behavior

I got this paragraph from Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, this morning.

The Republicans behaving radically are doing so in the knowledge — or at least the strong assumption — that their behavior is performative, an act of storytelling rather than lawmaking, a posture rather than a political act.

I read the rest of the article, but it was hard because all I really wanted to do was come back and read that paragraph over and over.  “Their behavior is performative.”  Performative rather than what?  Douthat doesn’t say, but here are a few that come to my mind.  

  • Performative rather than utilitarian.  
  • Performative rather than strategic.  
  • Performative rather than logical.

I really want to say “Performative rather than serious.” but it is, in fact,  really serious that so many Republicans are acting out their belonging as partisans (Republicans) at a time when the country really needs them to act as citizens.

Douthat says that performative behavior is an act of storytelling, but I think it is worse than that.  It is an act of loyalty.  Maybe it’s just herd behavior, but at the very least it is rationalized as loyalty.  “The Trump” requires that we hold out to the end; that we say loyal and silly things.  You reason with this guy; he’s too much for me.

Here are two examples.

Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state, who will be casting an electoral vote for Mr. Trump, said,  “It’s almost laughable that anybody would think that President Trump should prematurely concede.”

Prematurely.  The long-term effect of this silliness will be to redefine the time for a concession to the last gasp.  Anyone who does not will, using Mr. Blackwell’s picture, have lost heart.

President Trump said yesterday that he is disappointed that not one court—including the Supreme Court—has had the courage to examine an electoral challenge on the merits.  

Courage.  It is a failure of courage, apparently, that all these courts fail to seriously consider Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.  It is not following out the normal standards of the law, it is not impartial jurisprudence, it is not responsible decisionmaking.  It is “cowardice.”

This wholesale subversion of language is a problem for me.  The whole subversion of the crucial processes that underlie democracy is a problem for me.  But if this is all play-acting and they know they are play-acting, maybe it isn’t so bad.  It’s just “performative behavior.”  [1] Maybe when the stage lights go down, Messers Trump and Blackwell will say, “Well, we gave it a shot.”

But what I fear, and expect, is that the normal processes of democracy have been weakened.  The courts will be judged on whether they have shown courage.  The concession of defeated opponents will be “premature” until the most bizarre challenges—legal, legislative, populist—have been exhausted.  

That language is now available.  It is modeled.  It is held up for approval, and people will have to decide actively not to use it. Before, it just didn’t occur o anyone.  I think that is asking a lot. 

[1]  And we are the ones that are odd for trying to reason with them.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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