Local Politics: ‘Owning the libs’ and the rise of politics as performance art

We’re in an era where Republican politics have become divorced from the notion of governance

Craig Calcaterra
Republican candidate for Ohio Senate Josh Mandel gives a thumbs up in agreement with an answer from candidate Bernie Moreno during a forum with four other Republican candidates at Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville, Ohio Oct. 24.

Let's take a walk down memory lane and revisit our middle school civics class, shall we?

In civics we learned that, in the United States, the essence of politics mostly involves a fundamental dispute over the role and purpose of government. Traditionally, that dispute involves those who believe that government should be limited to supplying the basics of a safe and peaceful existence — a military, a police force and at least some governmental measures to facilitate the creation of an economy — and those who think that government has a more expansive role to play in society via programs and initiatives that seek to directly address problems.

The former group believes that things get dicey when government goes beyond that which is mentioned in the preamble to the Constitution. Establishing justice, domestic tranquility and common defense is hard enough to do, they argue, so the less that is done in that regard the better. Historically this group has been a bit shaky about the "promote the general welfare" part of the Preamble, but there have at least been nods to it.

The latter group, while acknowledging the need for common defense and domestic tranquility, tends to hit that general welfare part much harder and believes that government can and should be used to improve people's lives via intervention in the economy and the establishment of social programs and the like. Historically this group has been a bit shaky when it comes to articulating the limits of government's reach, but with a few exceptions, the courts and their political opponents have imposed limits externally.

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That general dichotomy worked well enough in civics classes for a very long time, but I'm struggling to imagine how that's all handled now given that we seem to be experiencing a total breakdown of politics' connection to the purpose of government, along with the ascendance of politics as performance art.

Take the current race in Ohio for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. J.D Vance and Josh Mandel have spent millions of dollars and many months in pitched battle for Rob Portman's seat, but no part of that battle has yet to touch on a single policy position or proposal. The race has been 100 percent focused on who is most loyal to Donald Trump and who can best provoke and anger Democratic voters. It has consisted almost entirely of performative posturing and demagoguery against straw man liberals with no small amount of nativist railing against critical race theory and immigration in ways that are unconnected in any way to actual governmental policies. The campaign has been an exercise in branding with nary a nod to governance in any way, shape or form.

Meanwhile, in the legislature, we get a new report almost every day about some proposed policy initiative from those in power that is disconnected from the traditional competing desires of either limiting the scope of government in society or using government as a means of improving people's lives. 

In just the past week, one Ohio House committee approved a bill that would allow the arming of teachers, while another House committee chair spent an entire hearing ostensibly intended to engage in some run-of-the-mill pharmacy board oversight to promote the idiotic idea of using Ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment.

Neither of these ideas — or most other things the Legislature has advanced in the past couple of years — are born out of the idea of advancing policies that either restrain or promote the use of the government's power as a means of shaping and improving society. To the contrary, they are performative acts the sorts of which we've seen in Ohio’s ongoing Senate campaign. A means of advancing a conservative culture war and giving those behind any given initiative a push toward political stardom.

To be sure, the idea of a politician drawing attention to themselves via demagoguery is nothing new. Candidates and public officials have done that kind of thing for years. The difference now is that the power and prominence they seek via these gambits are no longer a means to the end of implementing a given policy of any sort of substance. Power is the end itself. But it's an empty power that does not appear to be intended to be used for any traditional political purpose, be it to advance a substantive governmental policy or to rein in what is perceived to be governmental overreach.

If Mandel becomes a U.S. Senator on the power of owning the libs, I am pretty sure, based on what we've seen, that he'll spend his time as a Senator doing little more than owning the libs. If various legislative committee chairmen get their name in the paper for advancing some snake oil medical treatment or some needless and useless social policy, I am pretty sure they'll use their enhanced stature to move on to the next bit of quackery or culture war flashpoint to champion. There is no coherent ideology or policy behind any of it.

It's a politics that is essentially divorced from the notion of governance. It's a politics that cannot be accounted for by anything we learned in middle school civics. It's a politics of nihilism leading us absolutely nowhere.