Hamilton and the Politics of Protest

I just finished watching Hamilton. And it was fine. Better than fine, actually, it was remarkably well done. From the acting to the singing and from the costumes to the set, Hamilton ticks all the right boxes and its Tonys, I’m sure, are well-deserved.

But I’m not interested in Hamilton per se, but in the cultural significance of Hamilton.

By “cultural significance” I’m not so much referring to the play’s important contributions to the genre of musical theater as I am to the place it has come to occupy in the hearts and minds of those who love it. In a word, Hamilton has taken on an almost sacramental importance for its fans, to the point where criticizing it is tantamount to telling someone their baby is ugly. Certain lines mustn’t be crossed. Like ever.

My aim here is not to argue that people shouldn’t like things too much. Hamilton, the Red Sox, and Android phones all have their passionate supporters, and far be it from anyone else to lecture people about their fandom. Rather, my aim is to try to understand why Hamilton inspires the devotion it does, and conversely, why criticism of Hamilton inspires the backlash it does.

The answer, I think, is to be found within the quagmire of people’s political affiliations. I say “quagmire” because it is here where things begin to get rather tricky. One would think that, given the typical nomenclature of “the left” and “the right,” the political battle lines would be pretty simple: Conservatives are on the right and liberals are on the left, and whoever’s on your side of the aisle is your ally, and vice versa.

Yeah not so much.

My own observations and experience during the ’16 and ’20 presidential campaigns tell me that establishment liberals — by which I mean moderate Democratic voters who have no problems voting for Clinton, Biden, or Obama — view their conservative Republican opponents with less frustration than they do those pesky socialists to their left, waving their Bernie flags and screaming about Universal Healthcare.

Why is this?

My suspicion is that far-left socialist types muddy the waters for moderates. Without them, everything would be so simple: We Democrats are the decent ones, those Republicans are the deplorables. We are inclusive, they’re not. We value education and science, they don’t. We are diverse, they aren’t.  We accept gays and blacks and women, they won’t. If you think about it, framing things in this way makes it very easy to know who the bad guys are — it’s them, over there on the other side of the aisle, over there in those red states.

And it is here that something like Hamilton shows itself to have serious culture-war value, for its very existence is enough to anger the right: It’s a Broadway production intended for an elite urban audience who can afford $500 for a ticket, it appeals to a refined crowd of cultured, woke theater-goers, and to put the icing on the cake, it’s filled with black people (whose lives matter, just ask the bumper sticker on my Q7). As such, Hamilton is a perfect tool for cementing one’s status as one of the good guys.

So you can imagine the frustration on the part of many liberals when some uncouth socialist comes along and points out that Alexander Hamilton married into a slave-holding family and brokered slave purchases for them, or that he so feared democracy and the potential influence of the poor, the rabble, the mob — you know, the people — that he wanted presidents and congressmen to be elected for life (by the Electoral College rather than by a popular vote).

Indeed, this liberal frustration is only compounded when other challenges to the status quo are voiced from the socialist left: “You know Trump is just a symptom of a systemic problem, right? You do realize that Biden (and Obama and the Clintons) serve the exact same corporate interests as the Republicans do, right? You do understand that the Democratic Party’s positions on healthcare, education, guns, labor, and war would place them on the conservative side of the aisle in virtually any other western democracy, right? You know that Bernie is a moderate center-left politician anywhere but here, right?”

Geez, what a bunch of inconvenient pains in the ass….

By voicing these concerns, socialists are throwing a wrench in what would otherwise be a pretty clear-cut way of looking at things. All of a sudden it’s unclear who the good and bad guys are. All of a sudden the leaders of the blue-state-dwelling decent folk appear to be on the same team as the leaders of those red-state deplorables. All of a sudden it feels like anyone who’s not in the wealthiest 2% are unwittingly on the same side, whether they’re wearing MAGA- or Pussy-hats.

(To drive the point home, I challenge any Democrat to try voting against the interests of Goldman Sachs. It literally can’t be done within our two-party system.)

Hamilton, I would argue, is a cultural symbol much like Barack Obama is a cultural symbol. The function of this symbol is to assure us that, in the words of Walter from The Big Lebowski, “Nothing is fucked here, Dude. Nothing is fucked.” When we look up and see a black man in the White House, one who is charming, intelligent, well-spoken, attractive, and a family man, we get that nice warm feeling inside telling us everything is alright. Hamilton can function in the same way: It feels good that Hamilton exists. I like it that Broadway’s biggest smash hit in years is about the founding of our country and our valiant fight against oppression, and I like it that the cast is almost exclusively people of color. These things can give us all a vague sense of assurance that, in the midst of all the ugliness, things really will work out.

Given this context, blunt criticism from the far left of Hamilton (like criticism from the far left of President Obama) can feel like unnecessary rain on an otherwise pleasant parade. I would urge caution and sensitivity on the part of those who would speak ill of Hamilton, therefore, since many who are firmly rooted in establishment politics are simply unaware that other political paradigms exist, or that there even is any ideological space to the left of MSNBC. Tread carefully, is what I’m saying.

Is Hamilton good? Of course it is. But does it also white-wash (ahem) the elitism, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny of the political figures it portrays, using black and Hispanic actors to do it? Also yes. Does Hamilton deserve all the critical acclaim? Sure, for the most part. But does it also serve as a placebo that distracts us from our nation’s wicked past by providing a vague sense of feel-good patriotism? No question about it.

These things can all be true at the same time. Nancy Pelosi can rip up Trump’s State of the Union speech while also granting him every budget increase or tax cut he desires. The mayor of Washington DC can authorize a massive Black Lives Matter mural while also increasing the police budget in her district. Barack Obama can kill at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner while also killing (literally) hundreds of Muslim civilians with drone strikes.

And yes, Hamilton can also be two things at once: It’s a brilliant stage production filled with talented performers that also perpetuates our national mythology, according to which the founding fathers were good heroic patriots, all men are created equal, liberty and justice for all is a thing, and the glorious freedoms sung about in Hamilton would have applied to the black and brown actors singing about them.

I would urge all of us, therefore, to keep both sides of the story in mind when discussing Hamilton. If you’re on the socialist end of the left-wing spectrum like I am, don’t be an asshole. No one wants to be sucker-punched, and no one likes an iconoclast who desecrates sacred relics just because he gets off on trolling people.

And likewise, those who are the more moderate brand of liberal would do well to recognize that performative acts of protest and political theater that ignore the substance of an issue are mere Band-Aids or pacifiers that may make people feel good for a moment, but leave the systemic problems perfectly intact. That comforting, feel-good patriotism provided by images of kitsch Americana like Old Glory or slow-motion shots of amber waves of grain are dangerous if they lull us to sleep with promises of “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace.

And all of us, socialist or moderate, would be wise to follow up our viewing of Hamilton by reading some selections from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. You know, just to round out the picture a bit….


For Further Reading:

You Should Be Terrified That People Who Like Hamilton Run Our Country (Current Affairs)

Broadway’s Hamilton and the Willing Suspension of Reality-Based Moral Consciousness (Counterpunch)

A Hamilton Skeptic on Why the Show Isn’t as Revolutionary as It Seems (Slate)

Hamilton, the Musical: Black Actors Dress Up Like Slave Traders, and It’s Not Halloween (Counterpunch)

What I think About When I Hear That Broadway is Racist (Medium)

Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: An Orwellian Menage a Trois for the Neoliberal Age (Counterpunch)