The Artfulness of Performance Politics

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), then a presidential candidate, speaks at a campaign rally in San Diego in 2016 ( Image )

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), then a presidential candidate, speaks at a campaign rally in San Diego in 2016 (Image)


The office of the presidency comes with certain expectations: delivering on the promises that get one elected, exemplifying dynamic leadership, and ushering in bold changes for the betterment of America. Modern presidential candidates seem to have a tendency to neglect proposing feasible policy, instead focusing primarily on image-building, a pattern that dates back to Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. In the months leading up to the election, Nixon’s aides crafted television ads that sought to establish an emotional appeal between the viewer and the Nixon portrayed in the commercial. This, coupled with a robust call for ”law and order”,  landed Richard Nixon in the Oval Office.

Today, in an era even more so consumed by TV and with the added medium of social media, similar tactics continue. Presidential hopefuls are able to carefully tailor themselves and how they are perceived by the millions of people who follow them on Twitter or watch them on cable news. As a byproduct, candidates have been presenting the American people with policy proposals that they know will be alluring to a targeted division of the electorate without having a realistic course of action in mind as to how to see them through.

This sort of tactic was displayed to a nauseating degree during the 2016 presidential election. By the time November 8th plodded by, it was clear that millions of Americans had lost focus of what constitutes good governance. No one wanted to hear that it takes time to implement big changes at the federal level, and that without compromise, the whole process comes grinding to a halt. People wanted to hear attractive, innovative talking points, and for the most part, that’s exactly what they got. That’s why the current president has only delivered on one of his five major campaign promises. It’s why when discussing the actual enactment of policy, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) embarrassingly came up blank after being asked to explain how he would enact his ideas. This did not appear to matter to some voters as much as Hillary Clinton’s speech inflection.

This kind of political wishful thinking is not limited to the office of the president. Newly sworn-in Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has seized the attention of the nation with her calls for programs like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, but, eerily similar to Sanders, has been unable to explain how they might be implemented.

This should not be the standard for governing in the United States. Those who hold office as well as those who seek it owe it to the American people to present realistic policies. In turn, candidates should be held to realistic standards. As 2016 recedes further into the past, we would be wise to remember the lessons imparted by that arduous election cycle as we look ahead to 2020. America needs leaders who do not just focus solely on what sounds good, but who have a methodical understanding of how to achieve results when sent to Washington.