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Through his use of Twitter the US may now have its most performative president, in the form of Donald Trump. But performativity is nothing new for the American Republic, argues Isaac Ariail Reed. Looking back to the early days of the Federal government, he writes that the early American state was able to lock-in public confidence in its authority by demonstrating its capability to wield power to the electorate and to elites.

Social media has opened a new chapter on political theater. That is what the pundits tell us. And indeed, research in political communication has touted the importance of the Twitterverse for the electoral fortunes of politicians, and every American election cycle now features think pieces on media strategy, online fundraising, and charisma. But just what is new here? How should we understand the role of theater and its interpretation in the world of political power more broadly? Amidst the rush of the news cycle, it is useful to reach for history and sociological theory. In particular, the combination of theory and history offered by comparative-historical sociology allows us to think carefully about the relationship between political theater, media and the functioning (or non-functioning) of the Federal Government.

Success through emergencies

In my research I argue that the success of the Federal Government in the early years of the USA (1783-1801) was due in no small part to the public interpretation of the government’s response to emergencies. To develop this argument, I examine two major emergencies of 1794: the Whiskey Rebellion and the war for the Northwest Territory. Both of these emergencies were manifestations of widespread, structural difficulties faced by the new American government. The new tax on whiskey, devised by Alexander Hamilton, was detested in many parts of the United States. In particular, “smallholders” (farmers who owned land, but not very much of it) resented the tax, which helped the Federal Government pay off war bonds at full value; these bonds had been bought from war veterans (many of whom were now small farmers again) at a fraction of their face value by wealthy speculators. The farmers, particularly in the western, less developed parts of the former thirteen colonies, interpreted the tax as evidence that the new government would replace the tyranny of London with the tyranny of the then capital Philadelphia. In the Whiskey Rebellion, this resentment exploded into a violent attack on tax inspectors in western Pennsylvania, the occupation of the Washington County, PA courthouse by the militia, nicknamed the “Mingo Creek Boys,” and a 7,000-man march on Pittsburgh by rebel forces.

In a related crisis, the Northwest Territory (what is now Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota) was the site of two major military defeats of the US Army by the Ohio Indian Alliance in 1790 and 1791. This was not surprising. The Continental Army had been disbanded after the revolution, and the extant US Army in the 1790s was astonishingly small; furthermore, the US government lacked the funds necessary for a bigger one. Thus, the men leading the new American state found themselves in a Catch-22 after the economic downturn of the 1780s. They needed possession of the Northwest Territory, and the land purchases that would come with that possession, to make their government financially solvent; but to secure the territory, they needed an army, which Congress struggled to fund.

In social science theory, state-building is usually tracked in terms of money, guns, and lawyers. This means the possession of capital, weaponry, and organizational capacity is what determines whether a state succeeds in becoming sovereign over a given territory. An alternate set of studies look at cultural traditions—for example, religious commonalities between rulers, staff, and populace—that can make a new government legitimate in the eyes of those it rules over, and, perhaps more importantly, in the eyes of those who staff its organization and enforce its rules. All of this can be understood in terms of what are called principal-agent relations. The sociological theory of states directs us to examine the degree and means by which state rulers (principals) can get their staffs, various elites and local powers-that-be (agents) to “buy in” to the state project, and thus do their bidding. Lawyers, guns and money are useful ways to secure agents, as are, sometimes, certain forms of intense identification, such as Calvinism. You can make a state through punishment, through enticement, and through shared culture, because these are all ways to make sure “agent” acts on  behalf of, and in the interests of, “principal.”

State-making from scratch in the 1790s

But in the early years of the American republic, none of these usual factors for state-making obtained, at least not at the level that would have led us to predict success for the Federal project. Anything like legitimate governance was much more familiar to new American citizens as something that took place at the level of former colonies turned individual states, where citizens routinely accepted that their state governors would have wide-ranging emergency powers. At the Federal level, it was a different story entirely. The fiscal and military situations were not only dire, but disastrously interlocked. To many ordinary Americans in the electorate, it looked as though the government was failing. A vicious cycle of agency problems was undermining the feasibility of the government, and the very perception of this lack of feasibility only contributed to the problem.

So how did the new rulers of the American state pull it off? In popular explanations, the answer is “statesmanship” or “farsightedness.” Instead, I argue that there is a further dimension to state-formation, which was quite important in the early American republic: public performance and its variable interpretation. The American state, in its early moments, was an instance of state by demonstration. In particular, the action of state agents in the face of crisis, widely publicized, helped to secure the agency relations that would prop up the state as an organization. George Washington appointed Anthony Wayne, a hard-drinking war hero from Georgia, and a consummate self-promoter, to lead the new American legions. Wayne’s charisma allowed him to recruit more effectively, and in the Northwest Territory, his troops won a relatively small battle against the forces of the Shawnee war chief, Blue Jacket; the Ohio Indian alliance was then devastated to find that they were locked out of the forts of the British, who had promised them support. Wayne’s modest military success was reported in the American press as a glorious triumph and magnificent moment of courage (“The Battle of Fallen Timbers”). And when an assembly of variably outfitted east coast militias marched over the Allegheny mountains to crush the whiskey rebels, citizens concluded that the militias constituted a massive Federal army because George Washington described them in a major speech as the saviors of the republic. (Similar speeches were given by the governors of Jersey and Pennsylvania and the officers who led the militias.)

Modelling state-formation through performance

The model for the performative dimension of state-formation is relatively straightforward; the devil is in the details of interpretation. It is a model with three parts: Emergency, where problems emerge that urgently demand (or appear to), the demonstration of the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence over a given territory by a would-be state; Acts of state, where in response to the emergency, acts are taken “in the name of the state” to kill, injure, coerce, threaten, or negotiate with named adversaries, and solutions to emergency problems are sought and acted out in public; and public interpretation, where via the media, these acts of state are made widely available for variable interpretation by elites and the populace. These interpretations help secure the principal-agent relationships that make up the state.

Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art [Public domain]

Each instantiation of the model becomes part of the background for the next, in an extended series of performances. This model can help us to understand what, exactly, went right for the Federal Government in 1794.

When the east coast militias—christened a “Federal” army—arrived in Pittsburgh, the whiskey rebels melted away before any significant fighting could take place. But the army nonetheless arrested rebel leaders in a widely reported “dreadful night.” A short while after, white male heads of household in western Pennsylvania came out en masse to sign a public oath of allegiance to the republic. This too made the rounds of the early US’ press network, whose practices were an eighteenth-century version of retweeting. Editors clipped stories from other newspapers and reprinted them in their own—what we call plagiarism, they called spreading the news.  So, when Anthony Wayne and others described his troops’ victory as a gloriously violent destruction of “savages,” the public that made up the American electorate heard about it, and the new American elite took notice.

A consensus that may have saved the new republic

The outcome of all of this drama was an uneasy but workable consensus about state power and authority, with features that are recognizable to us today. Elites who otherwise disagreed with each other found common ground in pillorying the whiskey rebels for uncivil practices such as barn-burning and tarring-and-feathering targeted at tax inspectors. The approved method for contesting a law, these elites averred, was through voting and legislation. (The small farmers and their elite allies promptly did take up the rejoinder, electing Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in the hotly contested campaign of 1800). Anthony Wayne, meanwhile, became a cultural hero, despite a checkered past of election fraud and prodigal partying. His celebrity was an early indication of how effective attacks on racialized others, physical and verbal, would be a recurrent feature of American state power. But most of all, a precarious and fraught project—what contemporaries called a “General Government”—had demonstrated its mettle. The US government became a place where ideas of the nation meld with organized coercion and taxation. The state had demonstrated it could control territory, violently exclude the unwanted, and be judged as tough but fair to its former veterans—the representative of a “sovereign people.” If you were the second son of a wealthy planter, why not, then, pursue a post in the Federal Government? There was much to gain, now that the idea that the US would still exist in twenty years was a widespread belief.

All states—states in formation, and states that are engaged in the routine maintenance of their power—have a performative dimension to what they do. However, the early American republic is probably an extreme case, in which the life or death of the state project depended very much upon emergency responses and their public interpretation. Times have changed, and the argument about the 1790s is not seamlessly generalizable to today. Nonetheless, particularly because the present moment in American politics is frequently described as a “crisis,” some key implications can be drawn from my model of performative power in the 1790s, to help us think more carefully about the present state of American politics.

Maintaining state power through performance

First, the world is full of theater, and not all of it is equally consequential for state power. State of the Union addresses are a much commented upon ritual of American politics, but to date they have rarely been effective in changing Congresspeople’s, or citizens’, minds. Second, states depend not only on general buy-in from the population, but also on the ability to secure their various staff agents, high and low, and their elite allies. Even in democracies, where leaders are understood as agents of “the people,” states are still organizations, and those organizations present a series of agency problems to their (electorally installed) leaders. (A good example of this from recent news is the relationship between Steven Mnuchin and Donald Trump; as a Trump ally, the Treasury Secretary has defied Congress and written law in refusing to release Trump’s tax returns to Congress; he is, in the language of principal-agent theory, a good agent to his principal).

Thus, third, the performances to focus on are those that secure principal-agent relations when the means for doing so are otherwise missing. Are there aspects of border patrol behavior that can be secured via the public declaration of emergency? It is important to think counterfactually in this regard: what would be the consequences of a lack of public performance, a different public performance, or different interpretations of a performance? Would the machinery of the state continue to chug along with its lawyers, guns and money, or would the differences in drama result in a shift of alliances and therefore power?

Finally, fourth, attention to performative power would require us to reimagine existing behemoths like the American government as fragmented, overlapping audiences for public action by politicians inside and outside the state. What plays—that is, what makes for a convincing and compelling performance—in Congress may not play in the halls of the Department of Defense, and vice versa. That is to say that, whether through newspaper reprinting in 1794 or retweeting in 2019, political theater’s effectiveness in a complex society with a multi-part state depends upon the outcome of conflicts of interpretation. Once we understand this, we can start to examine how the trajectory of the American government in the post-Obama era depends, to some degree, on the variable reception of how it performs its power.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Isaac Ariail Reed – University of Virginia
Isaac Ariail Reed is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the Use of Theory in the Human Sciences, the co-editor, with Monika Krause and Claudio Benzecry, of Social Theory Now, and the author of Power in Modernity: Agency Relations and the Creative Destruction of the King’s Two Bodies, forthcoming with University of Chicago Press.