The title of this post is from a Hamilton song called ‘The Room Where It Happens.’ If you’re (I can only assume) somewhat against joy and music and are unfamiliar with Hamilton, here is the not-even-Cole’s-Notes-worthy synopsis: Hamilton is a Broadway musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton that incorporates both show tunes and hip hop. It also incorporates diversity and inclusion, casting people of colour in roles they would not normally be cast. ‘The Room Where It Happens’ is sung by Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s frenemy, and ultimately, the cause of his death. Throughout the story, Burr desperately wants to be involved with the top-most decision making with the innermost circles of government and power, but he never quite gets there.
Part of the explosive popularity of the musical is that, although a show about grand and momentous events, the characters, ideas, and sentiment expressed throughout are deeply human and relatable. ‘The Room Where It Happens’ is a great song because most people are not content to merely observe the happenings of process — whether that process is political, popular, or a play. One of the most popular Hamilton memorabilia is an annotated songbook, detailing from start to finish the development of the show and the thought process behind the lyrics.
We have always mined the yearning to be in-the-know. The late 90s and early 2000s produced a spate of ‘Making the Band’ shows that allowed us to witness the formation and progression of various pop groups. Singing and dance competitions such as American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance dig from the same source, purporting to show us what it takes to become a star, while also involving us in the process. There are whole series dedicated to watching people prepare food. We are fascinated by preparation itself, and we like to be involved, or at the very least, know what being involved looks like. Exclusives, back-stage interviews, and unguarded moments with politicians, bands, and other celebrity figures all occur in rooms where things happen and where most of us would like to, at least for a brief moment, hang out.
The added dimension — especially in relation to political and public affairs campaigns — is transparency. And in general, there’s a hesitation to stay away from process because we make the assumption that there are things no one wants to know, things they will find boring, and things they shouldn’t know. Understanding process means understanding, in Hamilton parlance, how ‘the parties get to yes/the pieces that are sacrificed in every game of chess.’ How much you reveal and how you do it, though, is difficult to determine. Watching the progression of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the public’s reaction to her, and her in comparison to Trump, can show the disconnect between process and person, political and personal. Rebecca Traister, who has been chronicling the campaign for New York Magazine, spent time with Clinton on the road and said ‘something about the candidate is being lost in translation,’ and that she has been ‘plagued by the ‘likeability’ question since she was first lady.’
The likeability issue exists on a smaller scale for issue-based campaigns and their leaders. In an endless challenge to appear accessible, but authoritative, intelligent, but digestible, indomitable, yet palatable, the game is to be genuine while juggling demands that seem both unrealistic and completely fair to ask of the people and procedures that govern.
Repeatedly, the assessment of some of the current political circumstances is that there is a push against traditional institutionalism in favour of grassroots movements — or more specifically, grassroots movements that rely on the halcyon glow of imagined better days. The attempts to dismantle entrenched power structures is becoming more raucous, such as siding with Trump. And this is how complicated the game can be. Ironically, the Trump faction who champions various throwbacks to outdated power structures can be considered anti-institutional, despite the fact that of the two candidates, Clinton is the only one who could make history by challenging the institutionalism of male leadership by becoming the first female president.
The fact that coming off genuine is often a practiced art is as old as politics, but the rooms where things happen are becoming less physical and more conceptual. Who’s in and out of the room depends on who you’re asking, and along with the loss of trust in institutions come informal concentrations of sway that often have a better idea of how to walk the line of disclosure between the seemingly private and public. But letting people into the metaphorical ‘room’ is, in fact, one way to do this. Struggle is inherently humanizing — perfection, alienating — but with all of the deconstructing and shifting of actual physical institutionalism, there’s also new gradations and realizations of struggle. Not all struggles are equal, and a challenge constantly put to Clinton is whether or not her struggles are relatable.
And then there’s the Internet. Grassroots movements benefit from the informal and widespread use of the Internet, as it’s enabling this shift from a physical room to a metaphorical one. And the Internet, and all of the various platforms by which we share and shape our identity on the Internet, has only helped to extend this fascination with behind-the-scenes exclusives into our personal lives, promoting a level of information, accessibility and narcissism that also makes us interested in how others conduct their own navel-gazing. We have come to expect that at some point, we will see a humanizing side to any larger than life figure with glimpses ‘beyond’ a public face — perhaps we want myths more if we can be part of their making. Successful strategies get imbued with importance ipso facto, reinforcing our desire to know the ‘exclusive’ details as campaigns and projects progress.
Basically, letting people in on some of the dirty details has its time and place. When brought down to a procedural level it’s not always boring: the daily grind of how things get done, insecurities on success, the setbacks that one experiences along the way, are shared experiences, similar to Burr’s frustration with ambition expressed in the song. In the song, Hamilton counsels Burr: ‘If you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.’ In politics and in public affairs, removing some of the mystery is one way to make people feel invested. Revealing process has a role to play in increasing understanding of what’s at stake, making people feel important, and feeding our need to know some semblance of ‘truth’ behind what’s going on.
It’s not easy. You have to know when and how much to share, but within the context of shifting expectations, it’s become an integral part of how we determine the trustworthiness and likeability of a person, an organization, or an issue. Plus, for all the Hamilton fans out there, you have to remember Alexander Hamilton’s other piece of advice to Aaron Burr: ‘you don’t get a win unless you play in the game/You get love for it, you get hate for it/You get nothing if youﾅwait for it, wait for it.’