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Bush Shows that Politics is Theater


Politics is corrupt theater. Actors set the mood, and some members of the audience have their pockets picked.

Exhibit A is President Bushs surprise trip to Baghdad on Thanksgiving. Whats important is not the secrecy or the collusion by anointed members of the news media. Its the use of soldiers as props to amplify the big lie, namely, that the mission in Iraq is relevant to the security of Americans. This is a president whose administration is always looking for footage for campaign commercials. Remember when he donned a flight suit for the photo op on the USS Abraham Lincoln? That was the day he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. So why was it reported that on Thanksgiving Bush flew into a war zone? And this is the president who, when he spoke in England, had a designer backdrop studded with the words United Kingdom. That wasnt for the benefit of the Britons.

So lunch with the troops in Baghdad was just the latest move in the perpetual campaign. He met with no Iraqis; they are merely the liberated, that is, occupied.

It was pure theater, which is to say, mood-setting and emotional button-pushing. This is nothing new in politics, and it would be unjust to credit Bush with creating it. Funny thing is that when his predecessor did such things, Bush fans went apoplectic and for good reason.

To say that politics is theater is to say that it is superficial. The debates between candidates and parties, both formal and informal, are shallow and confined to minor details. (See the recent Medicare tussle.) What takes center stage is the competition between personalities, especially the ability to create certain feelings in voters. In the end most people select a candidate on the basis of whether he or she makes them feel safe about the future. They know better than to take campaign promises seriously. Bush promised to be vigilant about government spending, to eschew nation-building, and to effect a foreign policy of humility. What did the country get? The biggest spender in decades who has yet to veto an appropriations bill, the most confounding nation-building project in American history, and a strategic doctrine of offensive (preventive) war. If a private company made false promises on such a scale it would go out of business.

Why do people allow this to happen? Because they are powerless to prevent it. Despite the humbug about the glories of democracy, most people realize that, individually, they have no chance of casting a decisive vote. When was the last time an election outcome would have been different had you stayed home (or not stayed home)? Since no one voter makes a difference, no one has an incentive to take his vote seriously. People may protest that they do indeed take their votes seriously, but imagine that a genie granted your wish that whoever you vote for in the 2004 presidential election will win. I believe you would prepare for that election far differently from how youll prepare for the actual one.

Economists call this rational ignorance. Think of what it would take you, a busy person making a living and perhaps raising kids, to become really knowledgeable about the things a president (or congressman) has to deal with. Who has that kind of time? Who is able to read the federal budget and understand it? Members of Congress dont.

Since regular people cannot devote themselves to such research and since, even if they did, their one vote would be no more potent than an ignorant vote, they substitute a proxy for knowledge about issues: the mood created by the candidates.

Thus the skills rewarded in politics are not related to knowledge, wisdom, or even administrative prowess. Thespian skills are what win. The only uncertainty is over which mood the voters are looking for this time.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.