Congressional Kabuki and Normalized Deviance by Paul Webb Chapman
Japanese Kabuki Theater originated in the 1600s and grew through the years into a highly stylized form of entertainment with garish costumes and scenarios of conflict with pre-determined consequences. Kabuki theater is accompanied by flute, drum, and strings.
Normalized deviance is a term first coined in the investigation of the 1986 NASA Challenger launch disaster. The term was used in the context of when senior launch engineers failed to regard warnings by Thiokol booster engineers, who warned of the dangers involved with launch temperature. In response, launch engineers noted that 27 liftoffs had been conducted successfully despite evidence of “burn through” in the booster couplings. Deviation from safety standards became a normal practice.
Audiences easily see the mystery, conflict, and outcomes of Congress as they imitate Kabuki Theater. Garish costumes are replaced by dark grey suits embellished with a US flag lapel button. Congressional actors savor audience attention via outlandish claims, proving Goebbels dictum that lies told often enough become accepted truth. That, in turn, constitutes knowledge that outcome has been previously decided while deviating from normal standards of ethical and moral comportment, all the while thinking the audience is simply far too unsophisticated to grasp the reality and failure of their political masters.
Early Kabuki Theater had a “Flower Path,” a walkway from the stage into the audience. Today, proximity to our political actors is provided by the news media. Other than our daily paper and local TV news, national media fail journalism’s chief duty to report hard news. Rather, “news” has become a continuing editorial that never ends. Bystanders might wonder why the talking heads don’t get bored and report on something exciting: gardening, perhaps.
Observing politicians used to be fun. DC scandals, while not commonplace, once reflected the light hearted high jinx of Congress. In 1974 Wilbur Mills, a Congressman from Louisiana, had a few too many cocktails and jumped into Washington’s Tidal Pool with a stripper called “Fanny Fox, the Argentine Firecracker.” Ohio’s Wayne Hayes hired Elizabeth Ray as a secretary who admitted she could not type. 1988 Presidential hopeful Gary Hart was playing house with Donna Rice until the fun was interrupted by media and George H. W. Bush won the election. Sen. Bob Packwood (D-OR) would have been an early target of the “Me Too!” movement in 1995. His indictment by the ethics committee was over 10,000 pages!
Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, and now Trump are said to have philandered occasionally.
Today’s Tea Party would have loved Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) who from time to time announced the “Golden Fleece Award” recognizing wasteful spending in Washington. (There are many winners; two stand out: $57,800 on a study of the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the “length of the buttocks” and how their knees were arranged when they were seated” and $121,000, on developing “some objective evidence concerning marijuana’s effect on sexual arousal.”)
Today Normalized Deviance is reflected in Congress by the simple act of passing a timely budget/spending bill for the fiscal year. The failure of Congress is so expected that citizens now have no faith in their elected representatives; Congressional failure has become normalized.
Yeah, it used to be fun to observe congress; now it’s just sad. One wonders why any sitting politician should be re-elected.