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The Golden Age of Phony

The popular line on politics goes something like this: politicians are self-serving, institutions are self-preserving, and government is broken. In better times, this type of dissatisfaction inspired leaders to find policy breakthroughs that improved the country. But as we head deeper into this divisive era, theatrical anger and phony moral outrage are becoming ends unto themselves. Leaders are demonstrating their leadership by digging in and demonizing their partners across the aisle, while the whole country plays the blame game for who’s really responsible for our dysfunctional government. Whether it’s Donald Trump blaming immigrants, Bernie Sanders blaming “millionaires and billionaires,” or normal Americans blaming politicians, the en vogue explanation of what’s wrong with America usually points the finger at someone else.

But this view misses one of the absolute certainties of politics: voters tend to get what they want. Democracy might not be responsive to the nation’s needs, but it’s almost always responsive to the voters’ wants. If people want low taxes and generous entitlements, they can have them. That’s one reason why we’re now $20 trillion in debt. And if voters want their politicians to be angry and emotional—if they want them to demagogue about “American carnage,” as the president has, or to label disagreements between parties as a “constitutional crisis” as Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has—then that’s what they’ll get.

This dependence on anger and emotion in politics has given birth to a new term: virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is not a scientific concept. It’s a hokey litmus test that public figures give, and it’s the opposite of a wink-and-nod.

Virtue signaling is a primal scream of self-righteousness. In the Bush era, it looked like t-shirts and bumper stickers that read “Never Forget,” “Support Our Troops,” and “American Patriot,” which were almost always worn by people safe from the danger of fighting global terrorism. In the present, it’s left-of-center America’s inclination to connect everything they don’t agree with to racism, and the corresponding public persecution of people who do not share their heightened sensitivity.


Virtue signaling is the political equivalent of a magic trick, one that allows elected officials to distract the public with their perfect morality in one hand, while in the other hand, they torture inmates in Guantanamo Bay or use illegally collected CIA intelligence (the definition of a police state) to undermine the White House.

But calling out politicians for flaunting their fake moral superiority isn’t entirely fair, because phony virtue signaling is everywhere in American culture. It’s what the people want, and it’s what they’re getting.

Just look around. Turn on the TV.

In Hollywood, at the Oscars last month, host Jimmy Kimmel made the required joke for the mostly liberal audience when he said about Trump, “Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racists? That’s gone! Thanks to him!” At 2016’s ceremony, Leonardo DiCaprio used his platform to say that, “Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It’s the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”

But what is Hollywood’s actual record on diversity and the environment? Studio and network casting has become noticeably more inclusive over the past few years. But behind the camera, agents and studio bosses are still paying their entry-level workforce of recent college graduates about minimum wage, according to the Hollywood Reporter [1]. So if you’re not a rich kid whose parents can subsidize your $30,000 salary in the very expensive city of Los Angeles, diversity and inclusion need not apply to you. As to Hollywood’s other sacred cow, the environment, the social circuit steps up big when it comes to fundraising for environmental causes, but judging by the constant stream of private jets landing at the Van Nuys and Santa Monica airports at the northern and western flanks of the Hollywood Hills, it seems like LA’s media elite still prefers carbon-heavy transportation for trips longer than a jog to SoulCycle.

Elite universities suffer from similar dementia. We’ve all seen that the enthusiasm for diversity and tolerance on campus is strong enough for administrators to look the other way when students riot in opposition to conservative speakers. But now a study [2] published by The New York Times found that their phony virtue signaling around diversity occurs in the admissions office as well. America’s elite colleges often admit more students from the nation’s top one percent of income than the lower 60. In the Ivy League, six of eight universities are guilty of this. So where prestigious universities have succeeded in breaking down barriers of race, they’ve calcified another around class.

Corporate America isn’t doing much better. It used to be that if you wanted society to turn a blind eye while you exploited third world workers or blew the tops off of mountains, you had to give sizeable amounts to philanthropy. But in 2017, corporate America is inviting you to take part in the mission of social justice by purchasing their products. The internet has already been flooded with criticism of Pepsi’s new Kendall Jenner spot that insinuates that their beverage is the official drink of #wokeness. In it, Jenner takes a break from a photo shoot to lead a Black Lives Matter protest up to a police line, where she erases four centuries of racial tensions by popping the seal on an ice cold Pepsi.

In Nike’s “Equality” campaign, customers are invited to show their commitment to Equality—and to Nike—by purchasing a $35 t-shirt. Meanwhile, their contracts with athletes tell a different story: Nike’s billion-dollar lifetime deals with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Cristiano Ronaldo dwarf the endorsement packages they’ve awarded to the world’s number one and two female earners, Maria Sharapova (eight years, $100 million [3]) and Serena Williams (five years, $40 million [4]).

And as a grand finale, the lines of politics, celebrity, and phony converged remarkably in 2014, when Boko Haram, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Nigeria, kidnapped 276 schoolgirls. The ensuing social media campaign connected the White House, A-list Hollywood, and concerned citizens worldwide who tweeted #BringBackOurGirls from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes. That almost all of these women are still held in captivity should tell you how serious of a commitment those few keystrokes were. And that’s the great thing about virtue signaling: you can just buy a t-shirt and send a tweet. You don’t have to really do anything or get involved.

Indeed, in 2017, virtue seems to be more about denouncing people who don’t share your values than actually doing anything to bring about change. Social awareness is becoming a cultural affectation that’s about as sincere as yesterday’s 8 Minutes Abs, WWJD bracelets, and promise rings. The problem is, sometimes it can be hard to stay current with who the bad guys are.  For example, churches and synagogues—longtime liberal targets for their dated stance on gay marriage—still lead the way on solving some of the biggest problems with immigration. When it comes to doing the grunt work of sponsoring and housing refugee families, they are there.

And that’s what makes the Golden Age of Phony so special. It used to be said that actions speak louder than words. But today, the opposite is true: words matter more than actions. People are judged by intentions and not results. Society rewards those who affirm an approved list of social pieties, and not those who act to deliver on their promise. Whether it’s cowardly Republicans who’d rather take pot shots at Obamacare than be on the hook for fixing it, angry liberals who still cling to the belief that Donald Trump’s voters are all, by definition, ignorant and racist, or Hollywood stars and Ivy League faculties who preach a social gospel they don’t practice, the phoniness is everywhere.

Alex Keeney is a former legislative aide in the House of Representatives. He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he works as a television writer and political consultant. He blogs at www.lacarpetbagger.com [5] and can be reached at [email protected].

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "The Golden Age of Phony"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 21, 2017 @ 5:46 am

“But this view misses one of the absolute certainties of politics: voters tend to get what they want.”

Studies have shown that only donors get what they want; voters only get broken promises.

Additionally, there is so little common ground outside the beleaguered economic precariat, that it is impossible to satisfy one constituency without depriving another.

Correct that lying and deception are everywhere and the levels of phoney virtue signaling are an elite bicoastal epidemic.

#2 Comment By connecticut farmer On April 21, 2017 @ 8:33 am

There’s a part of me who thinks that this article is the equivalent of hitting a fly with a sledgehammer. On the other hand, if that’s what it takes, then so be it. The whole scene is becoming tiresome and boring. From the “I Support The Troops” t-shirts to the SJW phenomenon on the campuses, the level of hypocrisy on all sides is breathtaking.

#3 Comment By Harper On April 21, 2017 @ 9:12 am

Remember that old anti-drug commercial where the father finds his son’s drug paraphernalia?

Father: Where did you learn about doing this stuff?

Son: I learned it from you, Dad!

In place of the drugs, see virtue signaling. For the son, see the current political left.

And for the father? See American Evangelical Christianity.

While I’m *sure* there are evangelical baptists out there who take their faith seriously and do not use it to prove they are better than everyone else, I certainly didn’t see it in any baptist/ “non-denominational” church I was raised in.

Those churches were filled with drunks who would never dare set foot into a “tavern” for lunch, who preached charity yet never gave a dime, and who were vehemently against abortion….until it came to their own daughters, when a pregnancy would reveal that their daughter had had premarital sex.

TL;DR: Virtue signaling has been around for a long time.

#4 Comment By unadorned On April 21, 2017 @ 10:55 am

Hypocrisy is not the problem. Yes, it’s true that, for example, the white people in my very wealthy 98% white town put Black Lives Matter signs on their front lawns. This, even though they would never live in a black town, and if their neighborhood was suddenly to become 10% black they would flee. Hypocrisy?
The real problem is that their virtue-signaling, in no matter what form it takes,
masks the truth. It’s the lying, and distorting of reality that is the real sin. Every. single. time.

#5 Comment By TJ Martin On April 21, 2017 @ 10:59 am

Methinks the author is mistaking the right to ‘ protest ‘ and Freedom of Speech as well as the right to descent and to express one’s descent with what he claims to be ‘ Virtue Signaling ‘ in the quest of self righteousness … by making the common uneducated error of over generalizing the definition of the term … A ‘ Virtue Signaling ‘

The very fact that the author is willing to not only fall into error by over generalizing the definition of ‘ Virtue Signaling ‘ at the very least implies that Democracy , the US Constitution and Bill of Rights along with everything the US is supposed to stand for has no place in the authors world view or life .

Truly … what a sad sycophant the author must be to make such a grievous and immature error .. and then be willing to expose his error to the public .

And errr … hate to tell you Mr Keeney but your hypocrisy is shining thru the murky fog like a beacon in the swamp with this verging on a blatant example of ‘ Virtue Signaling ‘ posing as an article . Suffice it to say perhaps a little Logical Consistency is needed in the authors life ?

#6 Comment By The Wet One On April 21, 2017 @ 11:02 am

This is an article about Bill O’Reilly, right?

#7 Comment By connecticut farmer On April 21, 2017 @ 11:42 am


True indeed.

#8 Comment By Mark Thomason On April 21, 2017 @ 11:48 am

“It used to be that if you wanted society to turn a blind eye while you exploited third world workers or blew the tops off of mountains, you had to give sizeable amounts to philanthropy.”

People like Andrew Carnegie of steel wealth did it first without shame, and then later bought retroactive virtue with philanthropy from the money they’d made doing it.

#9 Comment By Argon On April 21, 2017 @ 11:51 am

“And that’s what makes the Golden Age of Phony so special.”

Byline: Alex Keeney is a former legislative aide in the House of Representatives. He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he works as a television writer and political consultant.

Consulting: If you’re not a part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem. (From the Demotivator website)

#10 Comment By Alex Clarke On April 21, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

“He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars.

General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer.”

– William Blake

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 21, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

If I understand “virtue signaling is superficiality, words unmatched by behavior. That’s a tough call because it is dependent on the matter in question, and whether action is demanded, expected, desired or even capable.

I needed some clarification and found this article helpful.


#12 Comment By Robert Charron On April 21, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

And I thought the reason the country was deeply in debt was because of our military expenditures, items like blowing three TRILLION on the invasion of Iraq, but now I am glad it has been pointed out that it is the “generous entitlements” that is responsible for our huge debt. And we are intending to spend trillions more to upgrade our nuclear weapon stack.

#13 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 21, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

”Elite universities suffer from similar dementia. We’ve all seen that the enthusiasm for diversity and tolerance on campus is strong enough for administrators to look the other way when students riot in opposition to conservative speakers.”

On October 1, 1964, Jack Weinberg was sitting at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) table in Sproul Plaza at Cal Berkeley. He refused to show his identification to the campus police and was arrested for violating the University’s new rules regarding student political activism. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) grew out of the subsequent spontaneous student protests against Weinberg’s arrest.


Those of us who were members of CORE at the University of Virginia learned of the arrest and followed closely the news of fellow CORE activist Jack Weinberg and of Mario Savio, who became a powerful spokesperson for the growing Free Speech Movement at Cal Berkeley.

Mario Savio passed away in 1996 as the result of a serious heart condition (he was only 53), but as I follow recent events at Berkeley, I can’t help but think how sad it is that the rights that Mario Savio, Jack Weinberg, and others fought so hard to win for free speech at that university are now being trampled underfoot.

#14 Comment By Dennis Tuchler On April 21, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

Now that you have vented, Mr. Keeney, what do you recommend we do? It is not the case that all government action is corrupt, but some is because no one wants to consider some better sort of election finance. It is not the case that all who demonstrate are feckless blabbers; many get involved in politics and seek to make things better with or absent government. And there are those of us who influence our families and friends and maybe even neighbors to do the right thing, whatever they might think.

#15 Comment By Alan On April 21, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

TJ Martin: By “descent” did you mean “dissent?” Not to worry, it is a common error.

#16 Comment By EarlyBird On April 21, 2017 @ 7:49 pm

Alex Clarke, thank you for that Blake quote. Powerful stuff.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 21, 2017 @ 11:41 pm

Eight years and four months ago when the least executive was elected. I was furious. I have but on rare occasion even used the term President in reference to him. Its still pretty hard. Maybe it was jealousy of some faux stance on virtue. But I have to say, I was appalled by his agenda.

And predictably an issue with the police arrived his solution I found peculiar for someone steeped civil issues — rather timid soul for the executive.

And we opted to go trouncing around the middle east at the behest of his established mentors and of Sec. Clinton, killing men who had forge their teeth in colonial leftovers, well, let’s just say, if my stance was phoneyed self righteous balderdash, his was hypocrisy turned on its head mind blowingly out of this world.

For nearly a year, people with premier educational credentials, elite niche’s in established corners of power have spent mounds of energy telling me the Russians are coming. They had in fact infiltrated the finer halls of politic and bureaucracy in the form of the current executive. They are still trying figure which hand of card will trigger speeches in Russian.

If people don’t want to consider him their Pres. that’s fine with me. I am still waiting to see if the Pres I voted for is going to show up and stay. And how long I will have to defend his absence to myself muchless anyone else.

I am not sure what else I could do to in action to match y attitude save voice it.

#18 Comment By Lake Superior On April 22, 2017 @ 1:39 am

“Not my president”.

You know, it never occurred to me to say “Obama isn’t my president”. I respected the will of the American people. I wished him well, and even when he did profoundly un-American things like expand NSA mass surveillance of Americans, institutionalize the drone assassination program, and help the Saudis starve children in Yemen I never said he wasn’t my President.

Admittedly, Hillary would have been a much harder pill to swallow, but I would have acknowledged her too, as I did her vile husband. Only a bunch of contemptible little fairies and Peter Pans would regress to this infantile level of denial – “Not My President”.

OK. Fine. Trump’s not your president. Then you’re not Americans. Get the hell out of our country.

#19 Comment By Asmilwho On April 22, 2017 @ 5:35 am

Anyone unsure of the definition of “virtue signalling” need only read the comment threads on this or any other internet article,

and count the number of people who state that they have not read the article in question … but can nevertheless correct the author on several important points.

#20 Comment By Liam On April 22, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

Just remember that virtue signalling far from limited to the left. The right too is *no less* mired in it.

#21 Comment By William Harrington On April 22, 2017 @ 6:23 pm

TJ Martin

Methinks you have misunderstood the author, perhaps by not noticing the phony nature of virtue signalling as speech that gains attention without demanding any sacrificial action on the part of the speaker. In other words, virtue signallers ( yes, a horrible and akward phrase) talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

#22 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 22, 2017 @ 11:42 pm

From the New York Times, April 21, 2017:

“Veterans of the Free Speech Movement of the ’60s, a seminal moment in the university’s history, are disheartened that Berkeley is now associated with violence and blocking speech instead of promoting it.

“’I don’t think Ann Coulter has anything useful to say, but it was unconstitutional for the university to bar her from speaking,’ said Lynne Hollander Savio, who took part in the movement and is the widow of Mario Savio, its leading spokesman.

“Ms. Savio sees a clear generational divide. Free speech, she said, was more of an absolute for her husband, who is commemorated outside Sproul Hall at the heart of the campus by the officially designated Mario Savio Steps.

“’Mario took a principled position — it was free speech for all,’ she said. ‘I think free speech has slipped as a value’.”


#23 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 23, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

It’s probably true the majority of white folks really wish to do the right thing. But what chance does that have against the donorist economic moneyed majority? (Calculating according to economics?) We should pray that evangelical tracts somehow reach this cohort and that conscience is provoked.

#24 Comment By An Anachronistic Apostle On April 23, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

Those churches were filled with drunks who would never dare set foot into a “tavern” for lunch, who preached charity yet never gave a dime, and who were vehemently against abortion….until it came to their own daughters, when a pregnancy would reveal that their daughter had had premarital sex. ~ reader Harper

Perhaps the charitable construction to place on this deliciously deplorable situation, is to consider just how dastardly these individuals might be behaving, were they not filling those churches.

But it is more self-gratifying, I suppose, to unleash a virtuous primal scream at the riff-raff who once rubbed shoulders with one in the pews. You’ve left them behind, unblinkered at last, and so of course they’re perceived as nothing but hopeless bounders, closet alcoholics, annoying hypocrites, and incurable reprobates. Good decision. That stuff is probably contagious.

Nevertheless, it would be a most curious hospital, that bills and is filled to its rafters with the 100% certifiably healthy.

#25 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 24, 2017 @ 7:23 am

“And we are intending to spend trillions more to upgrade our nuclear weapon stack.”

Since it’s all classified beyond the ken of the three hundred millions of us, it’s doubtful there is any “we” or “our.”