Election Loser: Erving Goffman (and Backstage)

At first glance, it might seem the Clinton email scandal and the Trump sexual assault recording are two distinct phenomena. But offensive secret recordings of politicians--as well as sexting scandals-- and national security concerns about email hackability share common sociological roots: the blurring of front and back stage by technology.

Privacy as we once knew it was predicated on a clear division between "front stage" and "back stage" (to deploy the metaphors of the mid-Century sociologist Erving Goffman). Front stage is where we present ourselves according to a certain agreed-to set of rules--don't pick your nose, be polite (i.e. don't insult war veterans, beauty queens and disabled people), and so on. Back stage, in short, is where we can let our hair down and be ourselves, where we may let a privileged few in to see our real, "authentic" selves. However, in a world where identities are not bounded within a single physically located individual but instead are scattered among avatars (think Weiner's "Carlos Danger") and email accounts (think state.gov versus clintonemail.com), there is no core identity to act as the backstage lodestone for a private self. Likewise, there is a weakening of social norms for front stage behavior.

What's more, the greatest cost of this technological mash-up of front and back stage is nothing less than our very notion of individuality. The individual, according to the German sociologist Georg Simmel who wrote a century ago, arises when a person occupies a unique social space at the tangent of multiple group affiliations--PTA parent, Baptist, doctor, Vikings fan, Irish immigrant, etc. Today, that self has fractured into a thousand online avatars. Meanwhile, the social groups within which we literally spend the most time interacting are "ungroups" - finite yet boundless social networks with no explicitly shared totems, practices, norms, or beliefs--i.e. not your father's Rotary Club. They do little to contribute to a cohesive sense of individualism as compared to say, being the only Mexican-American member of your local bowling league. And, of course, online interaction brokers no distinction between front and back stages.

Such disembodied communication occupies an ambiguous middle zone. After all, who can be absolutely sure that the sweet nothings email to a now-jilted lover won't end up on Facebook with some mocking commentary after a bitter break-up? Or that someone is not secretly recording your off-color humor at a dinner of so-called friends (or donors)? Of course, part of the rush of sending naked pics over Twitter might be the inherent risk of exposure--and the trust implied with sharing something so easily forwardable.

Social monitoring and the ever present threat of Wikileaks today makes Stasi-surveilled East Germany look like a campus safe space of free expression. (Okay, I exaggerate, please don't shame me online for that analogy.) In our world, the front-stage, back-stage distinction no longer holds. Privacy as we knew it is dead. And with it American individualism. In its place has risen a new social ethic: intravidualism--of the multiple, avatar selves. In this new social ethic, self-protection, as Clinton is slow to learn, is not achieved by withholding information but by offering up a constant barrage of data and seemingly contradictory identities. In this social world, Trump is not a prevaricator, he is merely a postmodernist, achieving privacy by being a blur of selves in the mirrors of the social media fun house. After all, he knew he was being recorded during his fateful bus ride but prattled on confident that his words would dissolve as mere drops into the information ether. And what he said at Access Hollywood was only a more extreme version of what he regularly offered up on the Howard Stern show. Clinton, meanwhile, is caught out trying to futilely construct a modernist boundary within a brave new world -undone by who other than Carlos Danger himself.

This election may or may not represent a party realignment, but it has certainly rewritten politics in the information age. Howard Dean's 2004 primary was often thought of as the first net-based campaign. Obama 2008 refined and built upon this model. But these were merely novel ways to raise money and organize supporters that took the place of traditional direct mail and phone calls. The real political roots of today's crazy campaign lay in the secret Nixon tapes that belied what he said in public. They run through 1988 when Governor Bruce Babbitt of Arizona ran for President and told his wife on the way to the podium, "I'm so horny for you," not knowing the mic was hot. They continued through Obama's "bitter" remark and Romney's "47 percent." But it was not until 2016 that the information society experienced its true Nixon-Kennedy moment. We like to complain about candidate inauthenticity, but in reality, we got the candidates we deserve when we don't offer them a back stage to which they can retreat.