Political Theater Double Features: The New Normal?

Phot by Jinx! Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Photo by Jinx! Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

“Speaker Kevin McCarthy returns to Washington this week,” CNN reports, “confronting a twin set of challenges: avoiding a costly government shutdown and addressing growing calls on the right to impeach President Joe Biden, despite resistance from the party’s moderates.”

Fans of DC theater may get a fall double feature!

“Shutdown” situations have become so popular and perennial that you might think they’ve been on the marquee pretty much continuously since the days of Washington and Jefferson.

In reality, all ten of the US government’s actual “shutdowns” (federal “funding gaps” that resulted in furloughs of government employees) have occurred since 1980. Even the 14 “funding gaps” that HAVEN’T closed the Smithsonian’s gift shops for a few days didn’t start happening until 1976. But the whole thing has certainly become the standard — the last time Congress passed a budget on time was 1996.

Congress got a much earlier start on impeachment theatrics when it attempted to bring down Andrew Johnson in 1868, but they’ve only done it three times since — all three in the last 25 years and two of them in the last four. If those are enough data points from which to discern a trend,  we may see at least one impeachment in every presidential term from here on out. And every one will be about as serious as … well, as the budget process.

When it comes to theater, modern Washington rarely does tragedy (1963 and 2001 are notable exceptions). Our politicians try to stick to comedy, and specialize in farce.

The important thing to remember about political theater is that it’s exactly that: Theater.

With control of government always split between the two “major parties” — arguably just factions of a single state party, in complete agreement on the only things that matter, which are preserving their monopoly and getting their rake-off from your paycheck — real issues of importance are almost never even addressed, let alone resolved by principled debate on cogent arguments.

American government these days is more like professional wrestling, with multiple teams — all beholden to the same league — switching off soap opera style between “face” and “heel” roles, then pretending to put each other into painful holds and through devastating body slams until the countdown to a predetermined (and hopefully surprising) outcome finishes. Which is what makes professional wrestling theater rather than sport.

I, for one, approve of the move toward this double feature paradigm. It’s the least we deserve given the insane ticket price.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.