Samsplaining Kayfabe

The idea is not original to me, but I have bothered myself to reject the null hypothesis that I am not primarily responsible for the specific neologism “political kayfabe.” I like the term because what it represents is immediately obvious to anyone even casually familiar with the many tropes of pro wrestling and with a layman’s interest in political science. It’s delightful shorthand for all the bluster and bravado on the pinewood stage of Congress, and it subsumes nicely some of the more important conclusions of both the median voter theorem and Duverger’s Law (sorry, I can’t find an ungated link to Riker’s ’82 paper). It’s also a good way of capturing the spirit of playacted audience participation. Kayfabe is chiefly characterized by feigned sincerity, particularly applied to rivalry. Ever-so-slight differences in opinion are greatly inflated in both importance and magnitude to the public, while backroom deal-making, bedfellowship, logrolling, and mutual backscratching is writ in Congressional ink along the dotted lines of each bill that squirms out of appropriations.

Kayfabe is not:

  • Baldfaced lying. The audience won’t buy anything that threatens their willing suspension of disbelief.
  • Scapegoating. Kayfabe artistes conspire to create scapegoats, but only as a by-product. It’s not essential to the practice.
  • Conspiracy. Well, not conscious conspiracy anyway. Kayfabe can arise naturally as a result of the incentives of a winner-take-all electoral process.
  • Insincerity. Not necessarily. Kayfabe demands the delicate craftsmanship of paring slight, legitimate differences of opinion, exposing and magnifying tiny fissures. It’s the art of re-scaling the Y-axis, so to speak. 
  • Sincerity. Not necessarily. The ultimate ends of kayfabe practitioners (be it soon parting a fool from his money or encreasing the dominions of the sovereign) tend towards sincerity, but typically in the narrow, limited sense of self-interest. Much of the difficulty in parsing political speech is that it can be difficult to distinguish between a skilled kayfabe practitioner and an honest believer. Fear the latter more than the former.
  • Propaganda. Propaganda can be a tool of kayfabe, but it’s also a tool of tyrants and totalitarians. 
  • Coercion. Kayfabe knocks on your door. Tyranny kicks it in.
Kayfabe is:
  • A means to an end. Strategic behavior suffuses politics. Particularly in the short run, budgets are fixed, and artlessly attempting to claim a portion of a fixed asset is doomed to failure. Without wheedling, conning, and fast-talking, without spirit, bravado, and a touch of derring-do. would-be politicians end up filtered out pretty early on in the selection process.
  • Participatory. Axiom: you can fool some of the people most of the time; you can fool most of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of time time. Lemma: unless they want you to. In The Power of Glamour, Virginia Postrel makes a very careful distinction between glamour and charisma. Glamour is good for winning elections; charisma is good for getting your way. They are separate but related skills. Kayfabe is related to both. Charming your audience [constituents|potential constituents] is valuable, as is charming your colleagues. However, charm fades quickly when folks refuse to play the game. Kayfabe can only persist when it’s mutually felicitous. 
  • Durable. Probably. This is a more tenuous claim, but audiences enjoy being in on a shared deception. We all know that Penn and Teller aren’t actually shooting each other in the face, just like we all know that there’s scarcely a dime’s difference between the dominion we labor under either Team Red or Team Blue, but if someone (not unironically someone like Penn or Teller) pulls the lid off the lie that is partisan politics, you can probably rest assured that either someone will hastily restore its integrity or will find a near-identical replacement (see Ch. 4 of Hinich and Munger for more).
  • Entertainment. One of the more tiresome (if accurate) neologisms that happened in my lifetime is “infotainment.” Yes, I read regularly, I even watch clips from The Daily Show from time to time. I’m also aware of “edutainment” as illustrated by the gloss-magazine character of the modern university textbook (including even my favorites). If we’re being thorough, we’ve also have coined “polititainment” and noted its prestigious lineage from Cicero’s grandiloquent orations through the Fireside Chat, Nixon’s “sock it to me” mugging, Clinton’s sax, and the entirety of Rick Santorum’s public career. Politics minus governance equals polititainment. And just like the Solow residual, that’s where the lion’s share sits.
Kayfabe on its own is neither harmful nor harmless. Its harm in the intents of the practitioners and the outcomes of their policies. It’s deadly fun, and exposing it is as dangerous as it is futile. But it’s a term that has a meaning, even if its true nature is difficult to scrutinize, even if it’s an eyeball attempting to gaze upon itself. I urge you to use it, but to use it correctly.
Cross-posted at Euvoluntary Exchange.

One thought on “Samsplaining Kayfabe

  1. Makes sense to me. 🙂 Thanks for Samsplaining for us. I think light-handed keyfabe has powerful positive implications. I’ve been enjoying parody entertainment lately that I hope will encourage the public to notice and look for some of the absurdities of our world…stealth-like. Rock on.

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