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Inventions, Innovations, Ideas

Leave No Billionaire Behind:

Political Dissent As Performance Parody

by Angelique Haugerud
Rutgers University


In an age when a picket line or parade of protesters wielding posters tends to evoke disdain or alarm not only in the halls of power but among ordinary citizens, the political action group Billionaires for Bush may be at the leading edge of the next successful development in popular protest. Employing the same type of satirical humor that has attracted loyal audiences to programs like Jon Stewart's Daily Show, the Billionaires take their parody of the ultra-rich to the streets. There they create blatantly ironic street theater in protest of Bush administration policies, drawing appreciative onlookers rather than uneasy sideways glances or cold glares. In her article on the Billionaires, Professor Angelique Haugerud of Rutgers University follows up on a lecture she gave at Princeton on December 9, 2004, exploring the Billionaires' methods, their relationship with the media, and reasons that their protest appears successful so far.

At the same time, it is worth asking whether protest that charms onlookers on all sides of an issue serves its ultimate ends. Are witty performances an effective means to persuade the public of the need for political change? Or do they become merely safe, contained experiences readily absorbed into a larger society of spectacle? Must not successful protest ultimately upset those in power? Or are such understandings of protest out of date? Does humor serve to engage the otherwise apathetic? And what does it say about the parameters for dissent in current American society if an ironic voice is one of the few to which the public will readily listen?

- The editors


Sunday in the Park

Who would stage a Billionaire Croquet Party on Central Park's Great Lawn on the very day and in the same public space New York City officials had declared off limits for a huge anti-Bush demonstration? The city government had claimed that allowing a large public rally in that space would destroy fresh grass whose planting had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that did not deter a group known as Billionaires for Bush. On that hot Sunday in August 2004 the day before the start of the Republican National Convention - men in tuxedos and top hats, and women with parasols, clad in elegant gowns and long silk gloves, gathered in small groups on the Great Lawn, against the backdrop of Manhattan's stunning skyline. They sipped champagne from fluted glasses and played croquet and badminton as dozens of journalists and photographers recorded the event. Were they elite convention delegates enjoying a chance for recreation before the event? Consider their names: Ivan Aston Martin, Iona Bigga Yacht, Noah Countability, Owen Dwight House, Meg A. Bucks, and Alan Greenspend, among others. The Billionaires for Bush announced that morning's croquet party as part of our 'Keep off the Grass' campaign to privatize Central Park. One of their leaders, Phil T. Rich (Andrew Boyd) declaimed to a reporter on the Great Lawn: not a single protester to be seen...we are unencumbered by people eager to exercise their supposedly inalienable rights just look at how alienable they are! The Billionaires are actually a satirical political group that opposes Bush administration policies. How, then, could they get away with a demonstration in the very space the city had declared off limits? What made their protest acceptable?

Irony and humor, as Phil T. Rich's remarks illustrate, are the Billionaires' discursive weapons. That can be confusing to spectators at least at first. Some observers delight in catching on to the ruse, while others never fathom it. Leave No Billionaire Behind! and Corporations Are People Too declared placards carried by Billionaires from across the country as several hundred of them marched down Fifth Avenue after their croquet and badminton in Central Park, eventually joining the 500,000 anti-Bush demonstrators marching through Midtown Manhattan. [1] They chanted slogans such as This is what plutocracy looks like! and No justice? No problem!

Billionaire semiotics are intended to reverse entirely the stereotypical protester identity. While officials often imply that good citizens are not protesters, the Billionaires deliberately avoid conventional markers of the bad protester category. They light-heartedly evoke rhetorical and stylistic contrasts between their group and contemporary angry liberals or 1960s hippies, even as they themselves champion liberal or progressive political agendas. They charm the media as well as the police; they are courteous and elegantly dressed; and if they are ejected from a political event, they are escorted out politely rather than arrested. Yet their theme is one of the least welcome issues in American politics and in dominant neoliberal economic discourse - namely class.

A delicate balance of earnest intent and absurdity is how a New York Times reporter describes the Billionaires for Bush style. [2] They simultaneously mimic and mock the super-rich as they spotlight how President Bush's tax cuts, proposed Social Security reforms, and other policies favor large corporations or the very wealthy at the expense of everyday Americans. Since many Americans hope (or even expect) to be rich one day, the Billionaires emphasize that their targets are the ultra-rich and corrupt corporations that undermine the middle-class and democracy. A sample Billionaire one-liner: George W. Bush doesn't pander to the special interests of ordinary Americans.

Toward an Anthropology of Protest?

How might we understand the political agency and subjectivity of activists who transpose liberal anger into enchanting tableaux such as protest croquet in the morning serenity of Central Park, or who stage other street actions such as auctioning off Social Security in Washington, D.C. on the day of President Bush's second inauguration; the Million Billionaire March during Republican and Democratic National Conventions; a ballroom-dancing flash-mob [3] in Grand Central Station; or thanking people outside a post office as they mail their tax returns on April 15th? What connections might be drawn between performative improvisation and political change? [4] How might we appraise a cultural politics of dissent and activism in the U.S. during this historical moment that is so profoundly shaped by economic neoliberalism and the Bush administration's war on terror? And what challenges does studying such activism pose to ethnographers? These and other questions inform the larger study on which this brief commentary draws. [5]

Ethnographic study of political protest is a departure from the more common tendency of anthropologists since the late-1980s to focus on micro-political practices and Foucauldian notions of power rather than organized resistance or social movements (Edelman 2001: 286). [6] Yet the sheer energy, size and diversity of transnational and national activist mobilizations, their organizational innovations in the Internet age (e.g., smart mobs, netwars), [7] and the urgent global issues they address demand scholarly attention (see Graeber 2003; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Klein 2002). The Billionaires for Bush offer a revealing anthropological entry point into this vibrant domain.

Research on activism or social movements poses ethnographic challenges such as possible over-identification with the groups studied, accepting their claims at face value, or representing them as more cohesive than they actually are (Edelman 2001:310). Yet anthropologists and historians, Edelman (2001:309) notes, may have privileged access to the lived experience of activists and non-activists, as well as a window onto the 'submerged' organizing, informal networks, protest activities, ideological differences, public claim-making, fear and repression, and internal tensions, which are almost everywhere features of social movements. Such research requires critical self-reflection, attention to researcher positionality, willingness to criticize the causes and movements under study, and scrutiny of both the politics and the epistemology of knowledge production. In addition, analysis of the wider social and political fields in which social movements emerge and dissipate is crucial to understanding the internal dynamics of such mobilizations and the varied responses of targeted constituencies (see Gledhill 2000, Burdick 1998).

Who are the Billionaires for Bush?

In everyday life, the Billionaires for Bush are writers, actors, artists, corporate professionals, academics, unemployed recent college graduates, and seasoned as well as novice activists. They have ties to a variety of other activist organizations and networks ranging from liberal or mainstream NGOs to more culturally and politically radical direct action groups. Billionaires for Bush members tend to be white, well educated, and upper middle class yet interested in the challenges of building cross-class and cross-race coalitions. They are not only cyber-networked activists who recruit and mobilize members electronically, but they rely as well on crucial forms of social connectivity (meetings, social events, street actions).

The group first appeared in 1999 as Billionaires for Forbes, and then in 2000 it became Billionaires for Bush (or Gore). From the start its focus was democracy versus corporate power; it called attention to growing economic inequality, the need for campaign finance reform, and other issues that members believed neither Democratic nor Republican parties were addressing effectively. In late 2003, they became Billionaires for Bush, not because they were necessarily ardent Kerry supporters (indeed many were not) but because they thought it so important to the country's future that George Bush be defeated. Registered during the 2004 presidential campaign as a 527 organization, [8] the Billionaires for Bush describe themselves as a grassroots media campaign that uses humor and street theatre to show how the Bush administration has favored the corporate elite at the expense of everyday Americans. As a member remarked, theirs is not the smash-the-system politics of the yippies in the 1960s, but rather a politics of make America fairer, redistribute the wealth...make the American middle class viable, and vote George Bush out of office.

In 2004, the Billionaires for Bush grew from a handful of chapters (with New York City as the headquarters) to about 100 chapters nationally. During the presidential campaign they organized extensive Limousine Tours through states where polls showed the election outcome was too close to predict. They have a polished website (www.billionairesforbush.com), and they have produced music CDs, a book, and an infomercial.

Meta-Protest? [9]

Delivering their message with humor and charm, elegantly dressed Billionaires for Bush perform in stylized opposition to popular cultural stereotypes of scruffy angry liberal protesters. For example, they encourage all their national chapters to avoid hand-made signs and to use the professional and standardized visuals that can be downloaded from their website. Web postings on Billionaire fashion tips, purchasable accessories (jewelry, dollar-print ties, tiaras), political message content (with policy background), and photos of Billionaire street actions circulate images of ideal Billionaire appearance and practices. Such normative signals conveyed electronically are reinforced and mediated through personal contacts between New York leaders and chapter heads in other parts of the country.

Through their dress and style the Billionaires for Bush appropriate stereotypical symbols of corporate America and the contemporary Right (projecting images of wealth, clean-cut respectability, and professionalism) in order to advance an agenda now associated with the Left (reducing the political influence of the super-rich and large corporations). When the Billionaires and more traditional protesters share a public space, they sometimes engage in mock heckling of one another; angry liberal protesters bearing hand-made signs, and clad in casual clothes become straight men in glitzy Billionaire street theatre. Emma Chastain (2004), writing about the Billionaires for Bush in The New Republic Online, light-heartedly counterposes the Billionaires' effervescence, bonhomie and sunny good humor on the one hand, and the unseemly anger and earnestness of left-wing protesters, liberal fury rut, bitterness, scruffy lefty protesters and a political Left [that] takes itself too seriously on the other. [10] Spectators' remarks capture these semiotic oppositions. The Billionaires' flashy visuals (tuxedos, evening gowns, professional banners and placards) and light-hearted, satirical style attract attention from passers-by who say they might ignore more traditional protesters or would resent loud, angry speech.

Billionaires and the Media

The impact of Billionaires for Bush depends not only on embodied performance but especially on news media coverage that extends their populist message beyond individuals who encounter the group directly. They have a savvy public relations team that issues press releases announcing their events in advance, as well as talented interviewees who are well informed about politics and policy. Journalists find them to be unusually charming protesters. Washington Post associate editor Robert Kaiser, for example, writes that Billionaires for Bush, no matter what your politics, must be one of the most likable protest groups ever formed. [11] By September 2004 the Billionaires' public relations team had tracked some 225 major print and broadcast media mentions. [12] These ranged from the New York Times (multiple stories) to the Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, USA Today, New Republic Online, CBS, ABC, Fox News, and CNN, among many others. News stories about the Billionaires for Bush are often tongue-in-cheek, entertaining accounts, with headlines such as Billionaires take the time to thank 'the little people' and Billionaires for Bush? Well, yes and no.

As these headlines suggest, the Billionaires for Bush fit a media niche focused on protest style contrasting the humorous and ostensibly new with the serious and traditional (notwithstanding the long history of irony and humor as techniques of resistance). In such news articles, the Billionaires' policy issues (taxation, media monopolies, corporate accountability, education, health care, campaign finance, growing economic inequality) are often mentioned in passing rather than analyzed in depth.

Particularly striking are two New Yorker features. Nine Billionaires appear in a New Yorker photograph taken by the late Richard Avedon in his studio the day of the huge 2004 anti-Bush demonstration in New York. [13] Also published in the New Yorker[14] was a full-page color cartoon sequence by Art Spiegelman, who adopted the Billionaire name Milty National, and who offers a whimsical view of the Million Billionaire March and Central Park gathering on that same hot, late-August day of protest.

Billionaires for Bush impersonate, as a member put it, an imaginary subjectivity, something that is already the stuff of fiction and a complicated set of projective identifications...it's like a parody of a cartoon. Thus they pose as invented characters from the Great Gatsby era or popular films or comics rather than as identifiable contemporary billionaires. The glamour they project as they self-consciously embrace tropes of status appears to signal complicity with and indeed derives legitimacy from the culture of celebrity and wealth they critique. Yet that pose becomes the means to pass a subversive message through corporate news media filters.

Likability of course has its limits, and a Billionaire member noted that the Yippies of the 1960s would be horrified by such plaudits. So too might some other contemporary protest groups. Yet all depend on media attention in order to circulate their messages, and today it is difficult to win non-hostile media coverage, or indeed any serious coverage for nonviolent dissent or political critique. [15] In such an environment, it becomes an advantage for the Billionaires to tap into the ironic sensibility that characterizes Comedy Central's popular mock news program, Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Today activists must adjust not only to changes in the political economy of mass media, but also to a tendency for some government spokespersons to construe political activism in a time of terror as a security threat that justifies repression and surveillance. That official stance is likely to reshape activist subjectivities as well as tactics. In an atmosphere of fear and repression, are irony and performance parody the only safe forms of political dissent?

Post-Election Billionaires?

Social movements, as Edelman (2001:310) observes, are often notoriously ephemeral and factionalized. But they can also be flexible and quick to adapt to new circumstances. Networks and skills developed in yesterday's campaign become vital resources for new battles.

Public relations experts whom the Billionaires consulted after the 2004 election urged the group not to change its name since it had become a brand with media cachet. After much internal discussion, they decided to retain the name and focus on key economic policy initiatives, especially the administration's plans to modify Social Security and the inheritance tax (which the Billionaire's dubbed the dynasty tax). Since the election, the Billionaires and other progressive groups and coalitions have been taking stock, formulating new strategies, reorganizing, partitioning, and reassembling. Collectively and individually, the Billionaires are exploring new alliances and opportunities in both formal and informal political arenas.

Effects of such campaigns are notoriously difficult to assess and can be quite subtle. And of course successful challenges to the status quo require multiple mobilizations and tactics; the impact of any single organizing effort is limited. Yet cultural resistance (see Duncombe 2002) can be a valuable first step in destabilizing political categories, reframing debates, introducing new ideas and norms, rewriting discourse, and building new political communities. On the other hand, some theorists, as Duncombe (2002:6) notes, view cultural resistance as an escape from politics and a way to release discontent that might otherwise be expressed through political activity, and others go even further by arguing that cultural resistance cannot exist, that it is fully incorporated into a society of spectacle, and that even apparently rebellious cultural expressions will soon be repackaged and transformed into, a component of the status quo. [16]

For the Billionaires, humor, irony and semiotic upending of protester stereotypes remain the best antidote to political visions they deplore. It remains for the academic to consider whether dissent as performance parody risks being fetishized, or destroyed by what Adorno (2002[1938]) terms irrelevant consumption. Is that the fate of liberal anger transmuted into the glamour of Gatsby-esque figures in a luxuriant park on a summer day?

During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Billionaires for Bush polished performance parody as a rare means to raise a particularly sensitive issue in U.S. politics: class. Their popular appeal rested on skillful deployment of semiotic contrasts reproduced in the media (and in official discourses and practices) and reiterated through performance: Billionaire charm versus liberal anger or protesters who are elegant rather than scruffy, hip rather than traditional, polite rather than offensive, and harmless rather than dangerous. As they cultivated an ostensibly new role of good protester and challenged older stereotypes, they were of course confined by the logic of the semiotic binaries, but stretched it in ways intended to promote change. One might lament the narrow discursive space available for the Billionaires' populist message, and yet celebrate the wit of insurgents whose political creativity is one of democracy's great resources.

Acknowledgments & Notes

I am grateful to the following individuals for helpful comments on this project: Catherine Besteman, Matt Buckley, Arpita Chakrabarti, Lee Cronk, Marc Edelman, Matt Feifarek, Lesley Gill, Carol Greenhouse, David Graeber, Mary Hawkesworth, William Kelly, Stacy Lathrop, Micaela di Leonardo, Sarasij Majumder, Fran Mascia-Lees, Noelle Mole, Louisa Schein, Kurt Spellmeyer, Jeremy Varon, Art Walters, Wendy Weisman, Brett Williams, and participants in a December 2004 mini-conference on constructions of political space and political agency at Princeton University. Portions of this discussion draw on Haugerud (2004). I owe particular thanks to the Billionaires for Bush for allowing me to attend their meetings and for so generously sharing with me their experiences and perspectives.

[1] The Billionaires understood that groups of fewer than twenty individuals could gather in Central Park that day, and they were careful to disperse themselves accordingly during their morning croquet and badminton on the Great Lawn. During their Million Billionaire March down Fifth Avenue, before joining the multitude of other protesters, the Billionaires' own marshals repeatedly directed their members to move to the right, Billionaires, to the right, like the country!--to make sure that their group occupied only a legal portion of the sidewalk and did not block other foot traffic. No Billionaires were arrested during these events.

[2] Jack Hitt, 2004, The Birth of the Meta-Protest Rally? New York Times Magazine, p. 20, March 28, 2004.

[3] A flash mob, according to the Word Spy website, is a large group of people who gather in a usually predetermined location, perform some brief action, and then quickly disperse. Such actions are coordinated by electronic text messaging, and to protect the planned serendipity of each event, participants aren't told exactly what the mob is supposed to do until just before the event happens. www.wordspy.com/words/flashmob.asp [accessed 17 September 2004]

[4] This issue was part of Carol Greenhouse's framing of Princeton's December 2004 workshop on Elections and the Reconstruction of Political Space.

[5] Between April 2004 and January 2005, I conducted ethnographic research among Billionaires for Bush. I attended a number of their public events or street actions in New York City, as well as weekly internal planning meetings of their Manhattan chapter, social and fund-raising events, and their national convention in Washington, DC in January 2005. I also spent time with their Seattle chapter and I interviewed chapter heads and members in other states. At their public performances and street actions, I observe and interview spectators, and I track media coverage and talk informally with print and broadcast journalists and film-makers who cover them. Portions of this discussion draw on Haugerud (2004).

[6] Anthropologist David Graeber (2003, 2004) is a notable exception.

[7] For example, see Rheingold's (2002) analysis of smart mobs and Ronfeldt et al (1998) on the Zapatista social netwar.

[8] The designation refers to Section 527 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code; in 2004 such groups could take partisan stances and retain nonprofit status as long as they did not coordinate with the parties or candidates they support.

[9] This phrase is from Jack Hitt, 2004, The Birth of the Meta-Protest Rally? New York Times Magazine, March 28, 2004.

[10] Emma Chastain, Right Attitude, New Republic Online, 30 August 2004. (http://tnr.com/docprint.mhtml?i=express&s=chastain083004) [accessed September 3, 2004]

[11] Robert Kaiser, Convention Diary New York City, 30 August -2 September, 2004.
(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/interactives/diary/republican/conventionDiary.html)
[accessed 6 September 2004 ]

[12] Major media are those with readership or outreach to over 250,000 people, including daily newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, magazines and local newspapers.

[13] Avedon's posthumous portfolio on Democracy, New Yorker, November 1, 2004, p. 76.

[14]New Yorker, September 20, 2004, p. 76.

[15] See, for example, McChesney (1999) and publications by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR): www.fair.org, among many other sources.

[16] On the latter idea, see also Adorno (2002[1938]) and Frank (1997).

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