What are we clapping for? America’s sad compulsion to applaud.


Years ago I was assigned to review a painfully unfunny off-Broadway comedy. As the show lumbered to an ignominious conclusion and the actors took their bows, I leaped from my aisle seat and sprinted, eager to be the first to find the blessed relief of the exit door.

In the lobby, a young man in a headset gave me a furious look. “You’re supposed to stay,” he declared, “and clap!”

He’d mistaken me, it seemed, for one of the people at this performance who had been given free admission to the show, apparently with the proviso they stand at the end and cheer — to impress, clumsily, professional critics like me. It was a memory that came back to me this week as I watched the proceedings in the House, a spectacle of Beckett-like surreality, with its own odd, theatrical aspects. One of the oddest is the Ritual of the Clapping Politicians.

At the start of each fruitless round of voting for the House speakership, someone from the ranks of each political party offered a nominating speech, a glowing summation of the sterling qualities of the nominee. A mind-numbing number of times, flowery versions of these encomiums were bestowed on two principal contenders, California Republican Kevin McCarthy and New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries. (A dissident Republican faction rotated through the nominations of several spoiler candidates.) And as each speech finished for the two major contestants, the same ritual repeated: The supporting contingents rose and clapped wildly.

As the week drew on and the House members went through this act again and again and again, I started to wonder: Who or what was this demonstration for? McCarthy and Jeffries sometimes sat through these stage-y interludes with neutral expressions — as if they had joined the statuary of some of their forebears in the Capitol Rotunda. Were these cheers meant to salve their egos? Were they a show for the cameras, as if viewers had to be reminded that the members were excited by their leaders? (Or, over this weird week, still excited?) Were they intended as team-building exercises, a variation of the circle-gathering by players and coaches before the big game?

In any case, our hyperventilating system of performative politics seems to dictate that everyone stay, and clap. Because clapping as a rote mechanism is a national pastime.

The annual State of the Union address is a prime example. Does anyone not find tedious the rising to applaud every other minute by the party faithful? Is the success of the speech somehow tied to the number of times members pull themselves out of their seats and flex their aching knees? And if noisy hails to the chief by others are not enough, how about the behavior of the nation’s most avid collector of compliments, former president Donald Trump, who, when standing before crowds, regularly claps for himself?

The practice has its analogue in the venues where clapping is a cherished psychic reward. “If there’s nothing else, there’s applause,” Eve Harrington, the calculating wannabe Broadway star, famously declares in the 1950 classic movie “All About Eve.” “It’s like waves of love coming over the footlights.” The waves these days are veritable tsunamis, as audiences — perhaps mimicking those rhapsodic Congress people — give standing ovations to virtually every live performance in the land. (And entrance applause to any actor they vaguely recognize from Netflix.)

Applause is of course often richly deserved, both in theaters and politics: For instance, the bipartisan clapping for the beleaguered clerk of the House, Cheryl Johnson — who calls the House to order and presides over the roll call of the members-elect — has been refreshing. When in 2020 I followed several of the candidates for president during their primary campaigns, they on occasion elicited powerful emotional responses. Of a campaign rally in Arizona by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) I wrote: “The vocal modulation. The oratorical rhythm. The instinct for a good story: She’s got the ingredients for a magnetic performance. And she delivers. When Warren speaks, you lean in.”

The applause her remarks drew that night seemed authentically earned, a far cry from the rah-rah clapping for the nominees in the House. For the nation’s viewers, I think, this juvenile practice communicates something unserious: Which beaming retinue can clap harder for its standard-bearer? It’s an endeavor as empty as that of coercing people into cheering for a dull comedy.

No less a thinker than Shakespeare pronounced on the hollowness of such gestures. As he leaves Vienna, the good-hearted Duke of “Measure for Measure” expresses his mistrust of the roars of the crowd. “I do not relish well their loud applause and aves vehement,” he says. A sentiment I can heartily applaud.

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