Democratic Dramatics

10 April 2023

Ivan Krastev has an interesting article in today’s FT (paywalled) in which he reflects on what he takes to be an overdramatization of the stakes of elections and/or reforms in a number of democracies around the world, including France. Opposing sides portray the stakes in these battles as la lutte finale when in fact they are nothing of the kind.

Of course, France is no stranger to this kind of theatricalization of politics. As has often been remarked, the French have a penchant for the street theater side of politics, perhaps because of their revolutionary heritage. But consider just the more recent manifestations of France’s desire to represent every political skirmish as an existential battle. To look only at the last half century or so, one has, moving backwards in time: today’s anti-pension reform movement; before that came the Gilets Jaunes in 2018-19; demonstrations against Hollande’s market-liberalizing reforms in 2016; the Bonnets Rouges uprising of 2013; the Manif pour tous protesting gay marriage as a civilizational threat in 2012-13; demonstrations against Sarkozy’s retirement reforms in 2010; demonstrations against Chirac’s First-Hire Contract in 2006; against the EU constitution in 2005; against Juppé’s retirement reform in 1995; against the Maastricht Treaty in 1991; against the Réforme Haby in 1975; and of course, most famously, les événements of 1968. And no doubt I’ve forgotten a few other major movements that led to large public outpourings. That’s a lot of protesting for one medium-sized country.

In each case the stakes were deemed fundamental and profound by at least some of the demonstrators animating the protest movements. Yet in each case the issue was ultimately resolved, one might argue, certainly without regime or “civilizational” change and ultimately with at most a slight adjustment of mentalities or in the relative salience of this or that issue in subsequent political discourse.

Such theatricalization of democracy has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, massive public engagement raises consciousness as to the importance of political participation and familiarizes a larger swathe of the population with the issue of the day, albeit often in a crude form. On the negative side, debate is distorted by the political antipathies of the moment: Are today’s demos fueled more by a true grappling with the ins and outs of pension reform or by antipathy toward the president’s governing style and elite governance in general? Were demonstrations against the CPE or Maastricht really about their ostensible objects or rather concerned with more amorphous political and social malaise? And the Mother of All Protests, the events of 1968, started from nothing and ended by being about everything, a generalized ras le bol that led some observers to dismiss it as a generational psychodrama and others to magnify it as a latter-day French Revolution.

I see on social media that some of the recent ruckus in France has been viewed enviously by self-styled American radicals who think that massive demonstrations connote imminent regime change and regret the absence of a similar style of politics in the United States. Most of these envious American commentators have little knowledge of French politics and no appreciation of the sad historical truth that la lutte finale has yet to prove final anywhere.

I used to enjoy the spectacle of the streets, vicariously to be sure, but my hair is grayer now, and my skepticism deeper. Yet even in my youth I had deep doubts about the kind and degree of change that could be effected from the streets. The passage of time has not changed my mind, but neither has it enhanced my ability to divine the future. Each crisis seems to invent its own way out, and each movement’s participants must find their own way of reconciling themselves to the fact that things rarely work out as one hopes.

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1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    D’accord avec tout ce que vous avez écrit.
    There is one more consequence of the “theatricalization of democracy”, as you put it. That is that the tendency towards “empty show” in lieu of actual engagement with difficult issues begins to dominate politics. Unfortunately, the performative trend in politics –in France, as well as the U.S.– not only heightens divisions, but plays into the ever-increasing manipulation of information and associated images. No one trusts completely what they read or what they see. Nonetheless, the images consume our attention, rather as the illiterate were by graven images and idols in the Middle Ages. Of course, this makes the simple formulas of demagogues more appealing to literate people today, busy with their own concerns and overwhelmed by the job of getting to the bottom of a question. This is something Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon understand very well, not to mention our own devils. “Pace” the long WSJ op-ed Henry Kissinger et al wrote about the potential dangers to democratic societies of Chat GPT; you can add the literally “manufactured” intellectual product generated by a computer to the list of elements theatricalizing our politics.

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