Casting a Discerning Eye on Political Theater

The term “political theater” has taken on some pointedly negative connotations in recent days. When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew two planeloads of migrants from San Antonio, Texas to Martha’s Vineyard on September 14, critics condemned the action as “political theater.”

When a group of Venezuelan migrants flown to the island filed a class-action lawsuit against the governor and Florida’s transportation secretary, claiming that they were misled and that their rights were violated, Mr. DeSantis lashed back, calling the lawsuit an act of “political theater.”

By itself, the term “political theater” carries no moral valence. Whatever valence it does carry derives from a performance’s adherence to truthfulness and from the alignment of its messaging with the methods used to put it together. When acts of nonviolent civil disobedience incorporate dramatic dimensions (actors, scenes, conflict, audience) to communicate political messages, they can certainly be considered as forms of political theater.

M.K. Gandhi’s 1930 salt march, for example, which dramatized the oppression of British colonial rule and the particular injustice of the British salt tax, has been cited as a superb example of political drama in which symbolic action inspired nationwide resistance and, later, nonviolent actions undertaken in countless venues around the world.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood well the power of dramatic action. Writing from a Birmingham jail cell in 1963, he explained that the goal of the Birmingham demonstrations was “to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” The key word here, of course, is “dramatize.”

Forty-seven years after Dr. King wrote his jail-cell letter, five young immigrants, three of whom were undocumented, sat down in May, 2010, in the Tucson offices of Senator John McCain to demand that he renew his support for legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship. (McCain had turned his back on the bill, the Dream Act, while engaging in a primary election battle with an immigration hardliner). Dressed in high school graduation caps and gowns, the protestors risked arrest and, for the three undocumented individuals involved, possible deportation. Ultimately, no immigration agents showed up to apprehend them.

The young immigrants’ action was clear political theater. Wearing caps and gowns to symbolize the reality that America is their home, they dramatized the fact that they were raised and schooled here. By virtue of the risks they took, they showed that they were now “undocumented and unafraid” to confront the shameful truth of the nation’s unjust treatment. They had been denied such basic rights as drivers’ licenses, work permits, and college scholarships – and the opportunities, granted to their American-born peers and classmates – to develop themselves fully as contributing members of their communities.

In other actions, including a 1500-mile, four-month “walk of dreams” from Miami to Washington, D.C., “coming-out” ceremonies inspired by LGBTQ protests, and additional sit-ins with caps and gowns, young and undocumented immigrants maintained a clear alignment between their messaging and the methods they used to organize and broadcast it. They didn’t coerce or deceive others in order to recruit participants. Young people joined the movement of their own volition, demonstrating courage in risking possible deportation and separation from loved ones and their communities.

When the Dream Act was narrowly defeated in the Senate in December 2010, the organizers of the movement pivoted and began applying pressure on President Barack Obama to assume the initiative. For a week in June 2012, for example, two protesters were able to shut down his Denver campaign offices with a hunger strike.

The pressure paid off, and Mr. Obama soon created DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) by executive action. Though the program did not offer a path to citizenship and has subsequently been buffeted by political winds, it has nevertheless provided temporary protections from deportation for hundreds of thousands of young people brought here as children – allowing them to work, get college scholarships, pursue professional careers, and open businesses.

This is political theater in action. When you contrast it with the internal deportation that Mr. DeSantis engineered, you see the latter’s corruptness in clearer, colder terms. It’s not simply a matter of the deception foisted on the migrants (they had no idea they were being sent to Martha’s Vineyard); it’s also a matter of the fundamental falsehood underlying the drama: the idea that immigrants constitute a threat to America, not a human resource needed now more than ever.

This is not to say that political and economic upheaval around the world, along with climate change, aren’t creating enormous pressures on the border. But it’s one thing to engage in responsible political discourse about a global problem affecting us, another to score points in a shabby excuse for a political drama.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.