Democrats Choose Aesthetics Over Policy

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tears the president’s address on February 4, 2020

The 2020 Democratic Primary has revealed more of the party’s true character than could have been anticipated. Long gone is the era of a moderate, somewhat working class party in which a candidate would give up his peanut farm for the oval office, or telling blatant lies and plagiarising would disqualify your campaign. The past several months of state primaries, and the preceding year of debates and media speculation, has culminated in the resound conclusion that the Democratic Party, its constituents, and the liberal media are willing to place aesthetics over policy.

Political aesthetic prioritises the appearances, abstract values, tone, and appeals to structures and systems over the importance of platform and policy-pushing. Rather than giving the public material power, it gives them feeling. That is to say, it is not important what a politician says, or what a party claims to abide by, rather, how they say it, or how they appear while saying it. However, this is not simple hypocrisy, or tit-for-tat whataboutist argumentation. Rather, political actions made are not defended based on their substance, but doubled-down on for their apparent visual or emotional characteristic, and justified along the lines of some self-defined system of values.

It is equally important not to confuse aesthetic politics with identity politics. While the latter focuses on politicians placing the importance of a given interest group over sensible policy — for example, using someone of a certain demographic to appease the interests of that demographic, rather than because that individual is the best choice — , the former is based around surface-level judgement of appearance or tone relative to a base institution — like attacking a candidate because they don’t belong to your political party, rather than attacking that candidate’s polices, positions, history etc. Where identity overemphasises individual constituents, aesthetic overemphasises optics.

To understand this, we must examine several key figures, digital trends, and media tactics of the Democratic constituency. First and perhaps most prominently, we have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has made headlines for a myriad of aesthetic stunts in the past year. In February of 2019, she set #resistance twitter on fire with her now-famous sarcastic clap during the president’s State of the Union address. Similarly, during this years’ address, the Speaker tore up the president’s speech as it ended. Both incidents were lauded by liberals and #resistance twitter as acts of, well, resistance. However, less than two months prior, house Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favour of the president’s $738 billion defence budget. On the very same night she tore up the speech, Mrs. Pelosi gave a standing ovation for Venezuela’s disputed head of state, Juan Guaido, who is not recognised as president by over 140 nations, effectively giving approval to yet another US-led coup in South America.

How can such a powerful figure be praised for her strength in resisting the president when she gives her full support to both his economic and foreign policies? It is here we see aesthetic dominate. The actual act of resistance itself is not the key; rather, the appearance of resisting through token gestures is employed. Military coups against sovereign nations can be supported, as long as some pieces of paper are torn up on camera. Passing the biggest military budget ever proposed to prolong never-ending middle eastern conflicts are ok, as long as a sarcastic clap is given. These performative actions have no material basis. Through them, no laws are enacted, no lives changed. Only the feeling that something has been accomplished. There is no nefarious, behind-the-scenes plot going on here; everything is made out in the open and readily accessible, allowing such aesthetic to completely supersede any attempt at material defiance. This is political theatre at its finest, and Democrats have embraced it wholeheartedly.

In fact, this embrace has gone so far as to completely distort the very image set by Democratic constituents themselves. Of the candidates featured in this cycle, one was a multimillionaire entrepreneur and two were billionaires. Hardly the people’s party they often tout themselves to be. In the 2016 election, financial stature was weaponised, as Democrats used both Donald Trump’s absurd wealth and monied interests, as well as total lack of political experience, as evidence of his inappropriateness for office. Yet, less than four years later, the same party proudly presents a billionaire hedge fund manager on the national debate stage. Why is Donald Trump not allowed to be a candidate because he’s rich and inexperienced, yet someone like Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, or Republican Michael Bloomberg (though admittedly a former mayor), is perfectly qualified?

The answer is the same as why Joe Biden can say Mexicans are trafficking heroin and meth into the United States, and a border wall should be built, but Donald Trump can’t: their aesthetic. Biden, Bloomberg, and the rest present themselves how Democrats think a politician should. They don’t wear loose suits, they don’t let their tie hang below the belt, and they don’t have unsightly tans. Therefore, they present an air of decency, and decency is the most sanitised aesthetic. Do any of these factors determine a president’s actions? No. Does any of this influence his policy in any way? No. These are simply issues which disrupt a longstanding hegemonic sense of what a “proper” or “civil” leader looks like. The aesthetics of civility is the driving factor. So we must ask ourselves: what is the civil aesthetic? Who defines what is civil?

Aesthetic civility, in practice, at best amounts to suppression of criticism, and at worst, outright white supremacism. All criticism is labeled as toxic; to criticise a political party and its structures is equal to baseless, far-right conspiracy theory. This is used as a scare tactic to prevent people from speaking up against dominant hegemonic institutions. We have seen this in 2016 and 2020 in the alleged “Bernie Bros.” Though back in 2016, and again last year, and even again this year, the notion of a loud, male-led, sexist, movement of villainous online trolls has been both roundly and empirically debunked, the stereotype prevails. Why? They don’t appear in the same aesthetic as mainstream Democrats. Their policy interests can not be disputed, so their aesthetic is attacked. They may be more willing to announce their opinions, and loud in their assertions. They may belong to a different social class. But the party doesn’t want expression, it does not welcome challenge. It wants polite, calm, re-affirmative “discourse,” where stakes are not raised for anyone, and ideas are not actually disputed. Anyone who dares to raise their voice higher than the ordained tone-limit is branded not as a passionate believer in something, but a rabid lunatic. Ironically, the trope was created by the same constituency which spread racist propaganda in 2008 to disqualify their opponent. The message then was clear: anything ethnic, non-white, non-christian, does not fall in line with the aesthetic demands of the Democratic Party. The racism of the statement could not have been less subtle. Yet, we are told this is the party of humanistic decency in an indecent time. But who decided this?

Democrats believe it is they themselves who are civil, simply by being themselves. For Hillary Clinton to assert the Republican Party is “an ideological party driven by lust for power [and] funded by corporate interests,” implying that the Democratic Party is not ideological and not driven by corporate interests, is both completely absurd and, ironically, ideological. If Republicans are uncivil, Democrats can not be civil simply by virtue of being not-Republicans. Yet, this fallacy pervades the party, the media outlets which support it, and ultimately the base which votes in its favour. By touting that civility is what Democrats do because Democrats are civil, the aesthetic becomes the ideology, and a dangerous movement surfaces, which throws out all insights to consequential policy and material action: “vote blue no matter who.”

This is ideology distilled to it’s finest, and weaponised. First, aesthetic is established as the most important aspect of politics. Then, the aesthetic is defined as that which is done by those who espouse it. Finally, the absolute notion is created that anything not within its self-defined characteristics are therefore a threat to its own existence, and must be stopped at all costs. You must vote for the Democratic Party regardless of the platform, the record, the wars, the lies. These are of no matter. Aesthetic reigns supreme. Pay no attention to the blatant and disproved lies. Decency is at stake! Civility is threatened! We must return to “normalcy!” A vote for anyone else is a vote in favour of the enemy!

If aesthetic is the ideology which the party has weaponised, then the mass media is the gunman pulling the trigger. Were it not for the tactical assistance of the media, the party would have no outlet through which to propagate itself. Television hosts proclaim political history simply does not matter. Any critique of persons in power is inexcusable. Anyone who dare speak against the party is a foreign asset, I guess, until they aren’t. Evidence is not needed. Unity behind the party trumps personal preference. If the common people become too politically active, rather than passively accepting the party, elite influence must be leveraged against them. However, if the common people appear to be truly unstoppable, there are institutional backstops to ensure the house always wins.

This is the result of aesthetics prevailing in politics. No longer is party platform, views on key issues, foreign and domestic policy, economic arrangements, and environmental advancements of any importance. What matters now is the presentation. The physical appearance of the person speaking. The tone of voice of the speaker. The passive-aggressive acts of symbolic defiance. The apparatus has set its own rules, and to stray from them is to veer into a realm of intolerable ideological extremism. All of this is at the forefront so that you, the citizen, may be left unaware and uncaring of any global atrocities and domestic regressions committed — a distraction to hide the reality of ever-widening class antagonisms.

One might ask, “but surely the Republicans are just as guilty of this?” Of course they are. The GOP is, debatably, more adept at utilising political aesthetic to subjugate the masses into dominating the political sphere. The key difference, however, is that the contemporary Republican Party does not pride itself on some notion of behaved-ness and virtuosity; they instead embrace their brash, loudmouth leader and make obvious their political corruptions.

The Democratic constituency, however, attempts to make civil aesthetic its identity. As we saw in 2016, civility ultimately can not be the central driving force of a political movement. Political action for the people must once again be the central focus. If the Democratic Party intends to not only win this upcoming election, but to push for a truly progressive change in American life, they must abandon such a nitpicking focus on aesthetics, and actually embrace a new and brave material policy which will benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans.

Kilgore is a media critic in Los Angeles

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