For all of human history, the people in charge of society have had to both publicly demonstrate their piety and enforce public morality. Maybe the ruler got the blessing of the religious leaders and ruled according to their doctrines. Maybe the ruler was the head of the religion or even considered a god. His decrees were in support of his rule, but also the faith over which he ruled. In all cases, public ritual has always been an integral part of how the ruler relates to the ruled and how the ruled understand their society.
The ritual aspects of public life often go unnoticed, because the rituals are a part of the shared reality of the people. The ceremonies and rituals of society objectify this shared reality in the form of roles, mores and values. These rituals bind the private life of the citizen to the public life of society, creating a shared reality we think of as culture. For the people in a society, this shared reality is just reality. The public projections of shared morality are simply part of the commonly accepted structure of life.
Just as important, the people participate in this reality by playing their roles as part of how they are incorporated into the public space. The rulers do the things rulers do, while the spiritual leaders perform the roles and ceremonies for their role. The people respond according their role and bear witness to these public displays. By performing these ceremonies, rituals and customs, the people in the various roles are reinforced as that element of the shared reality. The public performance provides cultural meaning.
Think of the rituals of primitive people. The songs, dances and costumes are not part of a causal relationship. They are not performing X ritual because it will lead to Y result. They perform their rituals, because to not do so would separate them from what defines them as a people. The ritual is a part of their core and it binds the members, even those on the fringe, to that core. It is upon that core that their other social structures are built. To those inside, it is deeply meaningful. To those outside it is entirely meaningless.
In modern America, the political ritual has replaced religion and even regional culture, with a narrative that plays out on television and the internet every day. This narrative is a repetition of an old rhythm that dates to the founding. There is the sense of communal responsibility. There is the threat to the community that is spiritually well understood, but otherwise ill-defined. Within this construct, there are the roles for the moral leaders, the purely secular and the internal threat that binds with the external threat.
The template for this is the old New England town, living in fear of Old Scratch, the eternal tempter, who exists on the fringe of society. His presence defines the righteous, but is ignored by those only concerned with daily life. Troubles in the village, a bad harvest or maybe some unusual behavior, set the righteous against the secular, allowing them to maintain the moral high ground in society. At some point, the one cavorting with Old Scratch is found and is ritualistically punished for putting the community at risk.
Today, the word “democracy” is used instead of community. It transcends the literal definition to include the shared spiritual, cultural and emotional habitat. A threat to democracy is not someone rigging an election or causing the tabulation equipment to malfunction. In this age, a threat to democracy is a threat to our existence, in the same way a threat to the mother of small children is a threat to her small children. These threats are best understood as a threat to the emotional logic that operates our society.
As a result, our political theater is an endless loop of the Left declaring some threat to democracy, while the Right is either skeptical or insufficiently enthusiastic for defending democracy against this new threat. The threat itself can be nothing particular, as it is just a stock character in the drama. The Left warns, the Right scoffs, the threat inside our democracy is found and the Left demands punishment in blood. This is a narrative that is replayed on all stages of public life, both small and large. It is our shared narrative.
As is any drama, the characters are all interdependent. Instead of these being written into our national morality tale by clever writers, they are created and perpetuated by the players themselves. The Left is conditioned to create some version of the secular, materialistic Right, as well as the spiritual threat to the community. For its part, the Right is conditioned to seek out and play their role as well. As soon as the Left conjures a new version of Old Scratch, the Right responds by dismissing it in some way.
The roles of tempter and collaborator are also performed voluntarily. Take, for example, the alt-right a few years ago. They immediately went for the taboo iconography in order to make themselves both the thing the Left fears and the collaborator with that threat. You had suburban white boys from good families, dressing up as Nazis, while holding torch light processions. It was entirely symbolic. It was a plea to have a larger part in the national morality play, like a child’s plea for attention from a parent.
It’s why this summer we will probably have a long running drama about reparations to the descendants of slaves. It has nothing to do with the blacks. It is simply a casting call for all of the best performers to show up and perform their role. There will be plenty of self-righteous Progressives. On the Right, the skeptical, but tormented right-winger and the selfish and obtuse right-winger will have roles. The crowd will divide among those who prize spiritual fulfillment and those obsessed with material happiness.
Of course, it does not have to be about reparations. There are many possible themes around which to build the narrative this year. Ilhan Omar has given the usual suspects a reason to fret over antisemitism. Elizabeth Warren wants it to be about the threat of big business to our democracy. Ocasio-Cortez would like a dramatic performance of democratic socialism. The subject is no important, as the Left and the Right know their roles so well, they can play off of one another without a script.
This national narrative is why outsider politics never gains traction. There is no role for a second moralistic character. There can only be one righteous main figure in this tale, as to have others would suggest alternative moralities. The whole point of the performance is reinforce the only allowable morality. That leaves the other roles, which is why anything that is an authentic alternative either drifts into the role of the materialist Right or the roles of Old Scratch and his subversive tools within the society of the righteous.
That is the great struggle for alternative politics. Those seeking to build an authentic alternative must accept that they can never be in that drama, as to do so strips them of their authenticity as outsiders. At the same time, they must guard against being cast as the threat, the tempter, as that is just as ruinous as being the foil of the Left. Instead, like an obscure playwright working on his craft, the authentic alternative must build an alternative narrative that exists outside the defining narrative of the age.
This is what happened in the Enlightenment. The new philosophies of social organization that sprouted in that age, were alternatives to the dominant narrative structure of the age. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau started from a blank sheet, writing a new understanding of community and their narrative structure. They did not think of it that way, but that is in effect what they were doing when pondering a new origin of human society. A new origin means a new story and that requires a new narrative drama.
The new drama meant the kings and aristocrats had to be swept away in order to install the new narrative. Those roles and symbols were of the old narrative. To preserve the old roles and symbols would mean maintaining the old moral order, at least symbolically. To kill the king was to kill his role and kill the relationship between his character and the drama. The liberal democratic revolution replaced more than institutions. It erased the old narrative and created a new one, with new roles and new national characters.