The following post was published in The American Conservative on April 21, 2017:
The popular line on politics goes something like this: politicians are self-serving, institutions are self-preserving, and government is broken. In better times, this type of dissatisfaction inspired leaders to find policy breakthroughs that improved the country. But as we head deeper into this divisive era, theatrical anger and phony moral outrage are becoming ends unto themselves. Leaders are demonstrating their leadership by digging in and demonizing their partners across the aisle, while the whole country plays the blame game for who’s really responsible for our dysfunctional government. Whether it’s Donald Trump blaming immigrants, Bernie Sanders blaming “millionaires and billionaires,” or normal Americans blaming politicians, the en vogue explanation of what’s wrong with America usually points the finger at someone else.
But this view misses one of the absolute certainties of politics: voters tend to get what they want. Democracy might not be responsive to the nation’s needs, but it’s almost always responsive to the voters’ wants. If people want low taxes and generous entitlements, they can have them. That’s one reason why we’re now $20 trillion in debt. And if voters want their politicians to be angry and emotional—if they want them to demagogue about “American carnage,” as the president has, or to label disagreements between parties as a “constitutional crisis” as Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has—then that’s what they’ll get.
This dependence on anger and emotion in politics has given birth to a new term: virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is not a scientific concept. It’s a hokey litmus test that public figures give, and it’s the opposite of a wink-and-nod.
Virtue signaling is a primal scream of self-righteousness. In the Bush era, it looked like t-shirts and bumper stickers that read “Never Forget,” “Support Our Troops,” and “American Patriot,” which were almost always worn by people safe from the danger of fighting global terrorism. In the present, it’s left-of-center America’s inclination to connect everything they don’t agree with to racism, and the corresponding public persecution of people who do not share their heightened sensitivity.
Virtue signaling is the political equivalent of a magic trick, one that allows elected officials to distract the public with their perfect morality in one hand, while in the other hand, they torture inmates in Guantanamo Bay or use illegally collected CIA intelligence (the definition of a police state) to undermine the White House.
But calling out politicians for flaunting their fake moral superiority isn’t entirely fair, because phony virtue signaling is everywhere in American culture. It’s what the people want, and it’s what they’re getting.
Just look around. Turn on the TV.
In Hollywood, at the Oscars last month, host Jimmy Kimmel made the required joke for the mostly liberal audience when he said about Trump, “Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racists? That’s gone! Thanks to him!” At 2016’s ceremony, Leonardo DiCaprio used his platform to say that, “Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It’s the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”
But what is Hollywood’s actual record on diversity and the environment? Studio and network casting has become noticeably more inclusive over the past few years. But behind the camera, agents and studio bosses are still paying their entry-level workforce of recent college graduates about minimum wage, according to the Hollywood Reporter. So if you’re not a rich kid whose parents can subsidize your $30,000 salary in the very expensive city of Los Angeles, diversity and inclusion need not apply to you. As to Hollywood’s other sacred cow, the environment, the social circuit steps up big when it comes to fundraising for environmental causes, but judging by the constant stream of private jets landing at the Van Nuys and Santa Monica airports at the northern and western flanks of the Hollywood Hills, it seems like LA’s media elite still prefers carbon-heavy transportation for trips longer than a jog to SoulCycle.
Elite universities suffer from similar dementia. We’ve all seen that the enthusiasm for diversity and tolerance on campus is strong enough for administrators to look the other way when students riot in opposition to conservative speakers. But now a study published by The New York Times found that their phony virtue signaling around diversity occurs in the admissions office as well. America’s elite colleges often admit more students from the nation’s top one percent of income than the lower 60. In the Ivy League, six of eight universities are guilty of this. So where prestigious universities have succeeded in breaking down barriers of race, they’ve calcified another around class.
Corporate America isn’t doing much better. It used to be that if you wanted society to turn a blind eye while you exploited third world workers or blew the tops off of mountains, you had to give sizeable amounts to philanthropy. But in 2017, corporate America is inviting you to take part in the mission of social justice by purchasing their products. The internet has already been flooded with criticism of Pepsi’s new Kendall Jenner spot that insinuates that their beverage is the official drink of #wokeness. In it, Jenner takes a break from a photo shoot to lead a Black Lives Matter protest up to a police line, where she erases four centuries of racial tensions by popping the seal on an ice cold Pepsi.
In Nike’s “Equality” campaign, customers are invited to show their commitment to Equality—and to Nike—by purchasing a $35 t-shirt. Meanwhile, their contracts with athletes tell a different story: Nike’s billion-dollar lifetime deals with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Cristiano Ronaldo dwarf the endorsement packages they’ve awarded to the world’s number one and two female earners, Maria Sharapova (eight years, $100 million) and Serena Williams (five years, $40 million).
And as a grand finale, the lines of politics, celebrity, and phony converged remarkably in 2014, when Boko Haram, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Nigeria, kidnapped 276 schoolgirls. The ensuing social media campaign connected the White House, A-list Hollywood, and concerned citizens worldwide who tweeted #BringBackOurGirls from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes. That almost all of these women are still held in captivity should tell you how serious of a commitment those few keystrokes were. And that’s the great thing about virtue signaling: you can just buy a t-shirt and send a tweet. You don’t have to really do anything or get involved.
Indeed, in 2017, virtue seems to be more about denouncing people who don’t share your values than actually doing anything to bring about change. Social awareness is becoming a cultural affectation that’s about as sincere as yesterday’s 8 Minutes Abs, WWJD bracelets, and promise rings. The problem is, sometimes it can be hard to stay current with who the bad guys are. For example, churches and synagogues—longtime liberal targets for their dated stance on gay marriage—still lead the way on solving some of the biggest problems with immigration. When it comes to doing the grunt work of sponsoring and housing refugee families, they are there.
And that’s what makes the Golden Age of Phony so special. It used to be said that actions speak louder than words. But today, the opposite is true: words matter more than actions. People are judged by intentions and not results. Society rewards those who affirm an approved list of social pieties, and not those who act to deliver on their promise. Whether it’s cowardly Republicans who’d rather take pot shots at Obamacare than be on the hook for fixing it, angry liberals who still cling to the belief that Donald Trump’s voters are all, by definition, ignorant and racist, or Hollywood stars and Ivy League faculties who preach a social gospel they don’t practice, the phoniness is everywhere.