Make Sanders’ Childhood Great Again

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders is using the power of her gubernatorial pen to attempt to make good on her campaign promise that every child in her state gets to grow up in the same state that “I got to grow up in.”


Thus far, Governor Sanders is “Making Childhood Great Again” via executive order, in particular by prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in schools and banning the use of the term “Latinx” in official public documents.  She is also expected soon to sign legislation working its way through the Arkansas legislature that seeks to restrict drag performances by classifying them as “adult-oriented businesses.”  

Sensible and fair-minded people disagree on policy. Disagreement is a sign of freedom of thought, and for this reason we don’t find opposition groups expressing outrage in North Korea.  So it comes as no surprise that people disagree about school curricula, and about how best to designate people groups, and about how best to identify the class of activities from which children should be shielded. 

My concern here is not that any or all of these policies have been championed and put into execution, but rather that their underlying purpose is almost certainly performative. They are designed to signal the Republican party’s anti-woke stance in the culture wars.  

No party has a monopoly on performative politics, and some performative politics (say, wearing an American flag pin) can be essentially harmless if also, at times, silly and vaguely childish. But performative politics can also be terribly damaging to groups who are subject to poorly thought-through policies that were crafted less to solve real-world problems as much as to signal allegiance (i.e. pander) to one’s base.  Time is also the ultimate zero-sum resource, and dedicating our attention and labor to trivial issues (or issues of our own invention) means devoting less time to sensibly addressing significant problems that directly shape our lives. 

Performative politics is pursued by politicians because governance is hard and campaigning is easy–and successful performative politics is a form of campaigning. Pandering to one’s political base rather than addressing our collective problems through policy is easy because the world’s problems are maddeningly intractable, and politicians are never blamed for not solving problems that they can blame on others.  When performative politics is messaged through policy itself, such policy isn’t crafted to address our problems but to cast blame (or to do harm) to one’s opponents.  

On the flip side, achieving actual success in a policy domain (for example, securing low unemployment rates or better reading scores among students) hardly guarantees voter approval.  In our complex political system even the best-informed voters struggle to piece together how policies shape our reality.  In contrast, it’s perfectly easy to recognize when public officials champion our heroes and vilify our least-favorite groups. 

Governor Sanders’ campaign pledge of ensuring that the Arkansas kids of today grow up in the same state that she did is the perfect invitation for ongoing performative politics.  At best the pledge is incoherent.  Sanders was born in 1982.  What part of 1980s Arkansas life does she want to maintain or even recapture?  Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas for the first nine years of her life.  Surely she doesn’t want to revisit Democratic rule or Clintonian politics, does she?  Unemployment rates were considerably higher in the 80s than they are presently.  The same holds true for murder and robbery and abortion, even before abortion was banned.  Graduation rates for high school were considerably lower than present during the 80s. 

Neither the 1980s nor today is the Golden Age of Arkansas.  To paraphrase Tocqueville, things get better and worse every day.  Life is in many respects far more secure, wealthy, and educated in Arkansas than it was in the 1980s, and to speak wistfully about some earlier time allows the listener to fill in the blank about the world they wish to recapture.  

What Governor Sanders means is plainly obvious and made all the more insidious for her not needing to say it aloud.  The United States is becoming more pluralistic, and dramatically so, in virtually every respect by the decade. This is but another way of saying that the United States is becoming decreasingly white and Christian. Sanders’ call to recapture her childhood days emerges from the same place as Trump’s slogan to Make American Great Again.  It appeals to our imagination and allows us to focus on whatever good things we wish–not the least of which includes the groups who once got to rule unopposed and whose presence was normative.  

Sanders’ political call to recapture the past can never be realized, and any serious attempt to achieve it would necessarily be catastrophic and oppressive.  But its real intent is not to be followed in earnest but to signal to folks who are afraid of the very real changes that are transforming our nation that their fears are legitimate, and that the changes they are facing are dangerous and bad, as are those who are causing them.  These changes cannot be reversed in policy, but performative politics can convey a sense of solidarity and affirmation to those who are frightened by them.  The risk of this solidarity is that it comes at the cost of vilifying and, all too often, actually harming our fellow citizens. 

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Open Forum, Race and Politics, Society, , , , , , , , , ,
Michael Bailey
About Michael Bailey
Michael is Associate Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, GA. His academic publications address the American Founding, the American presidency, religion and politics, and governance in liberal democracies. He also writes on popular culture, and his articles on, among other topics, patriotism, Church and State, and Kurt Vonnegut, have been published in Prism and Touchstone. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas in Austin, where he also earned his BA. He’s married and has three children. He joined OTB in November 2016.

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    I just watched a series of videos on English accents in the US and the person covering the varieties of spanish-influenced English accents described herself as “Latinx”. I am unequivocal about this: She gets to do this.

    I think maybe it’s a bit odd for me as a white guy to insist on it. I normally duck the issue linguistically by being more specific (Cuban-Americans or Mexican-Americans, etc) or just find a different handle (Americans who speak Spanish natively). I mean, they do not comprise an ethnic group, or an identity. People identify as Mexican or Cuban or Puerto Rican, etc.

    And at the same time I think this is not a big deal, maybe not for anyone but some people who sit right on this issue as academics and such and they have developed a way to talk about it. So let them. Sheesh.

  2. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I’ve read in several places that 96% of Hispanics think that “Latinx” is a silly term.

  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    @CSK: As far as I know, though, people have a constitutional right to be silly.

  4. Kathy says:

    Wages likely were higher in real terms in the 80s.

    I’d like to see a performance of that in state law.

  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: New question: How many of that 96% believe that the four percent to whom the label is important should just STFU and “go along to get along?”

    Bonus question: How did you feel when told that in the days you were working as an adjunct?

  6. DK says:

    @CSK: Interesting. What I read was that ~75% of Latino adults haven’t even heard the term. It should think it would hard for 96% of a group to have strong feelings about a word they’re unfamiliar with.

    I wonder what’s the percentage of statistics read online that are misunderstood, or miscommuncated, or just plain made up?

  7. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Of course they do. I don’t think I was suggesting otherwise.
    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    I don’t think anyone’s ever told me to go along to get along. But I’ll do it when something is too trivial for a fight, which, as Henry Kissinger observed, almost all academic squabbles are.
    @DK:
    You’re right. I just saw at Pew Research that it’s 3% of Hispanics who use the term and 23% of Hispanics who’ve heard it.

    I’m sure a lot of stats are unvented. Ask any anti-vaxxer and he or she will tell you that millions of people have died because of the so-called clot shot.

  8. Good post and good to see your byline.

  9. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @DK: Extensive studies have shown that precisely 62.897835% of all statistics seen on the Internet are incorrect.

    The remainder no one can identify how to even tell if they are real or not.

    Note: Probability that a statistic is false, misleading, or made up approaches 100% the closer you get to Tucker Carlson.

  10. steve says:

    “I wonder what’s the percentage of statistics read online that are misunderstood, or miscommuncated, or just plain made up?”

    105%

    Steve

  11. de stijl says:

    Has anyon

  12. Gustopher says:

    No party has a monopoly on performative politics, and some performative politics (say, wearing an American flag pin) can be essentially harmless if also, at times, silly and vaguely childish.

    You may be pleased to know that some of the MAGA/Q Caucus have stopped wearing flag pins! They’ve put that silliness behind them.

    Instead, they are wearing AR-15 pins. Pictures in the article below.

    https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/santos-luna-maga-republicans-ar15-pins-lapel

    And, of course, George Santos has joined them.

  13. Gustopher says:

    @de stijl: ye

  14. de stijl says:

    Has anyone ever before gone from Press Secretary to elected official? Props to her.

    Of Trump’s spokesmen she was by far the least egregious. Spicer was a train wreck from day one. Talking about crowd size. The last one, McEnany or whatever was just flat out stupid. She the thought that people who went to Rhodes College were therfore Rhodes’ Scholars. You can fix ignorant, but you can’t fix stupid.

    Why would Sean Spicer try to hide in the bushes? It’s so obvious! Besides, you have an easy get of jail free card which is “I have no comment at this time” deployable anytime you are not at the press room podium. Use that out, you freaking idiot! Why try to hide in the bushes?

    Once Melissa McCarthy started doing impressions of him on SNL he was toast. The McEnany or whatever her name was – her fuck up about Rhodes’ Scholars was the death knell. You, literally, are that fucking stupid and ignorant.

    Like when Trump felt entitled about the “Noble” Prize and tweeted out his butt hurtedness about not getting nominated for the “Noble” Peace Prize. Yes, the “Noble” peace prize. He is that dumb.

    People actually voted for this man on purpose. We live in interesting times.

    Sanders, at least, had a semblance of a brain.

    Why would Spicer try to hide? In a bush? It was so bizarre.

    Sanders, to her credit, was not a train wreck.

  15. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    Yo!

    (Sorry! I fat fingeted my phone.)

  16. anjin-san says:

    @de stijl:

    Like when Trump felt entitled about the “Noble” Prize

    Yes, the Noble Prize. Awarded by the Tai-Pan of the Noble House. VERY prestigious…

  17. anjin-san says:

    Governor Sanders’ campaign pledge of ensuring that the Arkansas kids of today grow up in the same state that she did

    I’m still looking for the magic switch I can flip to revert California to the way it was in the mid-20th Century…

  18. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @de stijl: Pierre Salinger (JFK’s Press Secretary) was appointed to the U.S. Senate when one of California’s Senators died in office. He subsequently ran for election to a full term, but was defeated.

  19. Moosebreath says:

    @anjin-san:

    “Yes, the Noble Prize.”

    Not to be confused with the No-Bell Prize, which a local film critic used to award to really bad movies.

  20. Trilobyte says:

    @lotsapeople: banning “Latinx” in official documents doesn’t stop you from calling yourself LatinX, or The Messiah or whatever thing you want to call your group. It only stops the government from doing it. I don’t agree with Mr. Bailey: the government isn’t obliged to call everyone everything they dream up that they want to be called. It’s not the government’s function to emotionally support people with their chosen names or groups. The group names the government uses should be functional and generally accepted, not pander to hundreds of tiny constituencies. People who are LatinX can go right on calling themselves that and just accept that the government is going to call them “Hispanic”. It’s OK. Everyone can just get over it.