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The politics of the spectacle

On Oct. 23, two dozen Republicans staged a new form of resistance to House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into the President of the United States. While members of the House Intelligence Committee met in a private session to hear testimony with government officials and experts on Russia, Ukraine, and the Trump administration’s foreign policy, the group of House Republicans began their protest by chanting “Let us in! Let us in!” outside the doors before pushing Capitol Police away and charging the private chambers of the closed-door committee hearing. 

This particular session was being held in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), where lawmakers can read and review classified documents and hear private testimonies. The protesting Republican members of Congress demanded access to the secret impeachment inquiry, going so far as to say it has been a “Soviet-style process” run by the Democrats of secret hearings and private depositions restricted to only few members. Nevertheless, these lawmakers refused to leave the chambers and proceeded to occupy the space for about five hours, derailing the interviews and depositions scheduled for the day, fomenting shouts between political parties, and demonstrating a physical side of the term “gridlock in Washington.”

Only hours later was it revealed that 12 of the Republicans involved in the protest were on committees involved in the impeachment inquiry themselves. Consequently, they were allowed to enter the SCIF without any issues, and they could have entered and observed the hearing without any issue whatsoever. Needless to say, this core fact was not mentioned by any of the 12 Republicans in the protest.

This instance of Republican protest and the theatrics of their storming the barred doors and shoving aside the Capitol Police officers only proves to demonstrate a fundamental truth about our politics in the United States. Our society views politics as theater, as an inherently performative procedure in our public life. Politics is a game of the spectacle.

Last year, I wrote an article about the power of symbols in our politics, elaborating on the fact that the symbolism associated with political victories and progresses can serve the good of our nation and of peoples around the world. While I still think politics can create authentic symbols of righteousness, progress, and change for the better, I realize now that the spectacle of politics dominates its possibility for symbolism.

Regardless of party, politicians and the institutional establishment around political life in our country values the optics and spectacular nature of government as entertainment rather than an organ of the state that necessitates honest confrontation with the truth and frank accountability.

For instance, the ongoing primary for the next Democratic candidate for the presidency has included four debates so far, but the Democratic National Convention announced at the beginning of the race that twelve debates were scheduled in all. The title of “debate” for these televised events is a misnomer. With each event, the sheer number of candidates on stage at the same time has made it nearly impossible for a true, vigorous, and substantive debate to take place amongst the candidates. 

Instead of creating a space for lively discussion on policies and meaningful questions, these debates have morphed into spectacles of their own nature: something more akin to sporting events where each player has thirty seconds to launch their mode of attack or focus group-tested slogan. Moderators’ questions aim to pit competitors against each other for battle, and candidates go for attacks on fellow candidates to gain airtime and acclaim post-debate. This might be good television, but it is not a debate. It is precisely a spectacle of our politics.

Unfortunately, it seems we live in a time when the more spectacular political decision garners more attention and thus more support from the people. The spectacle of politics is vastly more entertaining than the intricate details of substantive policy or the arduous task of governing a nation in the most complex sense, but this reliance upon the spectacle, the entertainment of our politics will ultimately lead us to a vacuous time when our politics are devoid of all means of moral validity and substantive achievement. When we regard our politics as a spectacle, the question of who can lead our country meaningfully and effectively pales in comparison to the question of who can entertain the American people most ridiculously and most amusingly. The politics of the spectacle threatens our country with a future more focused on entertainment and theatrics than good governance and leaders of good will and authenticity.

Kaveh Badrei is a senior Woodrow Wilson School concentrator from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at

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