On Politics as Theater

Apparently, it’s super quirky and cool for Kyrsten Sinema to give a thumbs-down to a livable wage. Neat! (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/BY-SA 2.0)

If you, like other Americans, recently received your $1,400 stimulus check, you likely appreciate the passage of the $1.9 trillion relief bill and its signing into law by President Joe Biden.

The coronavirus aid package, alongside offering direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, also extended $300 unemployment insurance boosts until September 6, expanded the child tax credit for another year, and allocated funds to COVID-19 vaccinations, rent and utilities assistance, and relief at the local, state, and tribal level.

The path to this legislation clearing both Congress and the White House, however, was a rocky one and not without controversy. For one, no House Republican voted in favor of this bill. Not one. Heck, more Democrats voted against the stimulus/relief package (two—Oregon’s Kurt Schrader and Maine’s Jared Golden) than Republicans voted for it. Owing to a majority in the House, this never really endangered the bill’s passage, but the final tally reinforces the notion that the bill didn’t have broad bipartisan support—at least as far as Congress is concerned.

In addition, other potential relief measures which might’ve been attached to this legislation were defeated, evidencing, in the eyes of many, the genuine disdain certain members of Congress have for their constituents. Kyrsten Sinema, in particular, drew the ire of Internet onlookers everywhere when footage of her exaggerated thumbs-down floor vote on including a $15 minimum wage in the aid package went viral.

I can’t presume to know what exactly was going through Sen. Sinema’s mind when she was making her cutesy gesture. A few critics suggested the moderate Democrat was trying to get the approval of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, which is especially egregious in that 1) McConnell didn’t even turn around to watch Sinema’s vote after she initially got his attention, and 2) McConnell is, ahem, a FREAKING REPUBLICAN. Party solidarity isn’t everything, but in this instance, it means a lot.

Generally speaking, then, Sinema’s theatrics were bad optics, a notion unaided by her arriving for the vote well-dressed with a Lululemon bag slung around her shoulder and with a cake for Senate floor staff forced to work through the night on the public reading of the COVID-19 stimulus/relief bill (more on this later). Even if her dessert offering was intended as a show of kindness for beleaguered Senate workers, it was a literal “let them eat cake” moment for her on a national stage.

To make matters worse, Sinema, through spokespeople, tried to deflect criticism of her no-vote on a $15 minimum wage by insisting that it was sexist to point to her thumbs-down in decrying her vote. To be fair, criticism of female politicians is often steeped in sexism. Political figures from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Hillary Clinton have suffered unfairly disproportionate barbs and scrutiny in the media, especially right-wing outlets.

In this instance, though, no one forced Sinema to make a big production out of her vote and it wasn’t as if the other Senate Democrats who helped defeat the resolution on a $15 minimum wage weren’t rightly condemned for voting with Republicans. As far as some might be concerned, she could’ve stood on her head. The direction of the vote was what mattered—and she chose incorrectly. On the heels of stated opposition to doing away with the filibuster—which is seen widely as an impediment to Democrats passing needed legislation by virtue of a simple majority—alongside the likes of fellow Democrat-when-it-suits-them Joe Manchin (who also voted against a $15 minimum wage, by the by), it casts Sinema’s outward profession of caring for working-class Americans in an awfully bad light.

Stunts like Sinema’s only serve to add to the glut of performativity which characterizes the current political landscape. Amid the negotiation of this latest stimulus/relief package through Congress and to President Biden’s desk, GOP senator Ron Johnson took it upon himself to slow down the bill’s passage by forcing Senate clerks to read all 628 pages of the bill, prompting Sen. Sinema to bring her ultimately ill-fated cake to the Senate floor. Rather than permit Americans in need, including his own constituents, to get the relief they deserve, he used his position in the Senate to delay the rolling out of real, tangible benefits.

Is the throwing of red meat to an increasingly calcified right-wing base purely for the sake of political capital not to be condemned in a more full-throated fashion? When does “owning the libs” cross the line? Is there even a line left to cross at this point?

In a similar vein, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently used his stature amid a deadly pandemic to very productively post a five-minute video of himself reading Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. The clip is an apparent attempt to defend Theodor Seuss Geisel’s works against the “cancel culture” of the left amid Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ move to take six books of his books out of publication for “racist” or otherwise outmoded imagery.

Not only was this decision the company’s and not the result of efforts of some conspiratorial leftist pressure campaign (and, by the by, Green Eggs and Ham isn’t even one of the Seuss works being taken out of publication), this doesn’t materially help Americans across the political spectrum. Besides, I could think of a lot of things more fruitful to do with five minutes of my life than watch a professional windbag like McCarthy read a book written for children. It’s boring on top of being insulting.

Don’t get me wrong—trolling has its appeal. In a media landscape already saturated by performativity and at a time when so any Americans are hurting, however, the above-listed nonsense falls flat, particularly when done as artlessly as the above examples. Only a select few people get to call themselves members of Congress. We need to demand more of them.


What is particularly unnerving in these examples of public spectacle is that they reinforce the idea of politics as theater, as something to be watched and not to be engaged with. Kyrsten Sinema, in the face of mounting financial hardship for scores of Americans, was more concerned about giving an attaboy to Mitch McConnell and bringing cake to Senate staff than improving the lives of millions of Americans, including residents of her own state. Ron Johnson, a serial Trump apologist, forced the reading of a bill basically just to be a dick and under the same conditions of health and economic crisis. Kevin McCarthy, who has been trying to claim he never supported Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election even though he TOTALLY F**KING DID, read a children’s book, ginning up some culture war bullshit in a disingenuous way to deflect from the disaster the Republican Party is, an organization threatening to tear asunder by its association with a pathological narcissist.

The proverbial bar seems like it has forever been lowered by four years of President Trump, but the conduct of these members of Congress is not to be encouraged or tolerated, especially for Sinema. Primary wins for progressives have regrettably been fewer and further between than leftists hungry for real change would like, but the incumbent should nonetheless be challenged here. Is her offense the most egregious in recent memory? Not by a long shot. But that one moment revealed enough such that Sinema’s constituents should have no doubt about where her loyalties lie—and they’re not with giving Americans a livable wage.

In the 24-hour news cycle, moments like these don’t get much time in the limelight—and perhaps that is a blessing as much as a curse. Regardless of whether we are to oust hack politicians like the aforementioned bad actors, it is advantageous to look past an obsession with electoral politics and build power at the community level, getting the buy-in of those who normally eschew politics as well as stunts like making videos about Dr. Seuss books and wagging their tongue at the poor. Simply waiting every two, four, or six years for better results just doesn’t cut it.

If you’re like me, you used to believe or still do believe that “politics should be left to the politicians.” This is the absolute worst thing you can do, frankly speaking. When we become spectators, it only encourages the shenanigans referenced earlier. Americans deserve better than the likes of Kevin McCarthy, Kyrsten Sinema, and Ron Johnson. The path forward starts with us, the people who elected them in the first place.

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