Indianapolis Colts kneel during the playing of the national anthem, September 2017. PA Images/All rights reserved
The refusal of American football players to stand for the national anthem in protest of systematic racism and police brutality continues to divide the country and capture the attention of the world. Adding fuel to the fire, in a widely derided PR stunt, Vice President Mike Pence even left an NFL game early to show his anger with the protesters.
It is tempting to chalk this whole episode up to another politics of distraction. Trump’s original ramping of up the rhetoric coincided with the failure of his latest attempts to repeal Obamacare, and his controversial massive increase in defense spending.
Yet there is an even deeper politics at play here. The latest furore represents a fundamental frustration by citizens in America and across the world over their inability to actually influence their government and society. It is the rise of a symbolic politics from the ashes of the United State’s rapidly dying real democracy.
Symbolic protests are coming to dominate US politics. The summer was rocked by mass protests and counter-protests around the taking down of official monuments commemorating the Confederacy. It was a powerful reminder that the nation’s racial divides still ran deep.
And as San Fransisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick made clear when he started his #BendTheKnee protest last year, there’s a mounting frustration that traditional political and legal channels are broken:
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
This growing political frustration has meant many turning to symbolic justice. No matter how many times police are documented on video killing black Americans, the courts exonerate them. No matter how many protests there are against these injustices, the brutality continues and the authoritarian creep of a US police state moves forward seemingly unimpeded.
But the backlash against the protest shows how symbolic politics reflects the growth of a dangerous new “imagined democracy”. The renowned scholar Benedict Anderson famously referred to nationalism as an “imagined community”, one built on the romanticized bond people imagine they have with millions of others they have never nor will ever meet. It is the fantasy that unites people to support human made political inventions (like a nation state) as if they were inherent and timeless.
The embrace of “imagined democracy” is fully on display by the widespread backlash against the Bend the Knee protests. Players who dare kneel during the anthem are are disrespecting the troops who “fight for freedom”. They are draping themselves in the flag, blinding themselves to the real suffering of other Americans. For those opposing the NFL protests, the dream of American exceptionalism is far more important than the real-life struggles of their fellow citizens. The backlash against the NFL protest shows a refusal to recognize that US foreign policy is less about spreading democracy and freedom and more about maximizing corporate profits.
This desire for symbolic victories in the face of lessening genuine political power goes far beyond the US. It is more and more a global phenomenon. Here in the shocking Brexit vote has been seen as a rejection of Westminster as much as it was a rebuff of Brussels. Deepening political alienation has festered into a virulent native nationalism that has adopted the English flag as its most cherished symbol. Just as worryingly has been the embrace of the Union Jack in association with a misplaced nostalgia for destructive British Empire, a mass desire for lost imperial power in the face of a present democracy where people’s voices and opinions seem to matter little.
Standing Up for Real Democracy
It seems as if there is little opportunity to make concrete changes, and all that is left to fight over is our national symbols. People may have greater voice through social media but they certainly do not have greater power. Whether it is rejecting the Confederacy, the longing for the return of a bloody international empire, or the public embrace of neo-imperialism, we are only allowed to battle over the decorations that adorn a political system that is progressively shown to be devoid of real substance.
Progressive movements such as Black Lives Matters, the Bernie Sanders inspired “Our Revolution”, or the rise of Corbyn are attempting to reverse this trend.
Another example is the Momentum conference – tagline “The World Transformed” – again, people demanding the possibility of making real change.
If there is any chance at common ground between the protestors and supporters of the national anthem (and between those who wave the English flag and those calling for the rights of the “many not the few”) it is in a unified cry to take back our politics and make it real again. It is the shared desire to stand up for genuine democracy in the face of a system that can only be cynically defended by wrapping itself in the flag.