Drama-free impeachment isn’t just boring— it’s how Democrats are failing.
After the first round of impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump, a reporter with NBC News tweeted out a story that characterized the first of many upcoming impeachment hearings as “substantive” but lacking in “pizazz” or “drama”. That article, and its tucked away implication that Democrats might need to conduct more theatrics in order to win over public opinion, immediately drew hellfire from center-left blue-checked Twitter accounts. Scores of celebrated political commentators chimed in with criticism after criticism of the article — and heaped on disdain for the mere suggestion that Democrats should appeal to entertainment value or dramatics during the impeachment hearings.
By this time today, an entirely different kind of impeachment hearing has taken place and swept the nation. Marie Yovanovitch has testified, and with her hearing came drastically more impassioned speeches, including a moment when she responded directly to a tweet from President Trump in real-time. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) read the offending tweet out loud, accusing the President of witness tampering in a surprising (and yes, dramatic!) turn. Today, lawmakers are angry, raising their voices, talking over one another, and the proceedings are more entertaining as a result. Undoubtedly, this behavior will be covered as being a departure from past testimony, and just as undoubtedly, it will draw the ire of some commentators for doing so.
The core argument of those staunchly against the article and the acceptability of drama (again, made overwhelmingly by center-left political commentators and older generations of liberals) is that there is a dignified and commendable quality in being boring for borings’ sake, and that craving flair or dramatics is wrong, stupid, and means someone is being “less than” a good, intellectual citizen.
Both Allen’s own article and the critics slashing into it never pause to consider whether or not the desire of Americans to feel that these hearings are impassioned or dramatic could actually be a legitimate one. Those involved in this discussion have seen fit to call the idea that these hearings could be more entertaining moronic — critics doing so explicitly, and Allen’s own article subtly implying it with quiet disdain. Most discussion in this firestorm surrounding this article contains the implication that the American people are stupid, disinterested, and willing to clap at explosions while they drool and ignore the death of a great nation, or something. But if you put the underlying idea in these tweets under any weighty criticism, it cracks. Take common talking points:
“They go low, we go high.”
“Policy over presentation.”
“Our democracy deserves better.”
When it comes down to it, what moral high ground does “substance and measured” discourse have over “style and excitement?”? Perhaps too many episodes of the West Wing have led people to believe that the two are morally opposed. We might forget, for instance, that the dramatics of Shakespeare and theatre used to be the hallmark of ‘higher’ society, that inspiring strong emotions and shouting in a Roman Forum was once a sign of impassioned intelligence. Even in America’s own history, politics have often become entertainment and theatre — just look at the Lincoln Douglass debates, or JFK’s immense popularity. But in today’s America, the ultimate sign of elite intellectual tastes seems to have become the ability to tolerate C-SPAN. There’s nothing wrong with preferring a certain kind of news (I, myself, strongly prefer C-SPAN to CNN) but there is something wrong with pretending that one style of politics has more inherent value than the other. Practically half of any run-of-the-mill Democrat’s talking points will include appeals or criticism of Republicans’ showboating or dramatics. Almost all of those appeals are wrong.
Form Over Function
What this messaging misunderstands is the simple truth that someone who communicates in all the “wrong” ways (i.e., someone who isn’t respectful of political norms and standards) can have any kind of politics. Sure, sometimes acting angry and dramatic for cameras is indicative that someone doesn’t have a real argument to advance. But sometimes it can be an effective persuasive tool in service of a real argument. Democrat messaging confuses the wrapping paper for the present inside, like a child seeing a Christmas present wrapped in toy train paper and insisting it must be a train. For instance, when you strip Donald Trump of his anti-establishment wrapping paper, he advocates the exact same positions that GOP politicians have advanced for years, if not decades.
Ironically, this leaves centrist Democrats in quite the hypocritical position. They are insistent that Donald Trump and his style of politics is new and different, that it’s all flash and no substance, that he’s a self-inflated blowhard that doesn’t actually have any policy expertise or real knowledge, and most damningly, that he is unintelligent and shallow. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, by hyper-focusing on spelling mistakes and decorum, Democrats are the ones shallowly focusing on exterior presentation.
Trump’s presidency, whether we leftists like it or not, communicates plenty of policy positions to people. It does so strikingly effectively, and despite how abhorrent I find the policies, reaches people quickly and effectively. But prominent Democrats make just as much fuss about the way President Trump talks about detaining immigrant children as they do the fact that he detains immigrant children. Any criticism of a spelling mistake or poorly-worded turn of phrase ignores the fact that the morally condemnable part of this presidency is the beliefs, not the way they are expressed. It’s exhausting, elitist bullshit to waste time outraged at traits that are completely unrelated to good governance or creating good laws.
It’s been suggested before that perhaps members of the Democratic party might stop labeling people ‘deplorables’ based on who they support. This is a moronic suggestion — supporting someone with abhorrent beliefs means that, in some way, you support abhorrent beliefs. It is not wrong to point that out. But there is something to be said for the fact that labeling people deplorable based on how they want to participate in politics and not their actual beliefs unnecessarily alienates and discourages plenty of people. It does no good to the Democratic party to write off someone as condemnable (who may, for instance, be sympathetic to immigrants if they are appealed to with sincere dramatics) based on how they speak, how they get their news, or most importantly, how they participate in political debate.
Quite honestly, seeing these politics clash in real time feels like I’m stuck in my grandparents’ house. Every condescending tweet about Trump’s grammar surges forth the same exhaustion, frustration, and outright anger I get from an older person telling me to have certain table manners, to act a certain way, to not text at the table, etc. etc. This messaging is the political equivalent of an out-of-touch old person conflating me spending plenty of time on my phone with my intelligence or kindness. There’s a reason that “OK, Boomer” is so popular, and it’s because it soars past the annoyed and tired feeling of trying (and failing) to explain the fact that sometimes these traits are unrelated to one another to a generation who doesn’t get it, and doesn’t seem to want to. Maybe it’s rude, or abrasive. But it’s effective.
And that’s the entire point of younger peoples’ attitudes towards pointless exercises in manners and decorum — the generational valuation of direct, effective communication is rising. We’ve raised intelligent children, and there are new generations full of bright people who are curious and impatient with norms that don’t have any meaning or importance behind them. We should be proud that we have so many people able to see past the bullshit of manners for manners’ sake. But older generations are still clutching onto the skeleton of a form of political discourse that is not going appeal to (or serve the interests of) children raised on Twitter and Instagram.
(Cracks in) American Foundations
There is a deeper philosophical problem at the heart of this entire debate, which is that older, well-established Democrats cling to political discourse because they view American government as something that exists independently of the people it governs. Older generations would rather preserve a method of discourse rather than serve the interests of actual people. The political notions that this idea appeals to aren’t those of an American democracy — they are in support of the country as a Republic. America, for these insufferable tweeters, is a timeless institution, one that the common man shouldn’t be able to fuck up by being a classless rube.
This view of the country is wrong, and it’s harmful to the advancement of a responsive, effective government. I could not see our country (and in fact, all countries) more differently. Quite simply, countries do not exist. They don’t exist like you and I exist, or how your lunch exists, or how bills exist. Countries, and governments, are simply collections of people: people who decide to live a certain way, people who decide to behave a certain way, people who decide to give up certain freedoms in order to live a better life together under certain laws. Any country only exists due to the acceptance and consent of those who live in it.
I see our country (and in fact, all countries) differently. Countries do not exist.
It’s not just me who sees it this way: despite best efforts to insulate government from the people in the way of the electoral college, and other antidemocratic measures, our government was founded on this principle. The Declaration of Independence acknowledged this, stating: “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Later on, it was Lincoln who stated in the Gettysburg Address that we live in a “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The Democratic party has cast aside these actual political beliefs underlying this nation, and instead surrounded itself in a lofty castle of institutions, traditions, and ideals. What they will not acknowledge is that this castle is made of sand, and can be weakened or even wiped out if the party does not adapt to the coming waves of generational differences and build something atop the actual foundations of a nation: the needs of the populace.
It’s worth noting that taken to its most radical extreme, populism of the kind that I am discussing here has consequences that I certainly don’t endorse. I don’t think the bones of governance in this country should be completely flexible, as America without a Supreme Court, without a Presidency, without many of the literal ways the government is organized, would simply no longer be America. The ways that we use these institutions and the way that we conduct political discourse are what should bend to the will and needs of the people, but those ways we use the institutions are the things that Democrats insist on steadfastly keeping the same at any cost, including the very steep price of losing elections and enthusiasm, especially the enthusiasm of younger people. Quite frankly, if Democrats don’t start bending the more flexible parts of American democracy (like embracing political theatre and dramatics), they’re going to find themselves with a dissatisfied citizenry willing to break the less flexible parts of America: checks and balances, rule of law, and good government. To an extent, the 2016 election already shows the frustration and willingness of people to allow Trump to break parts of our democracy that we really don’t want broken. Clinging to polite procedure and formality that can be abandoned is the political equivalent refusing to amputate a limb at the cost of a life.
It is no secret that on a national level, Democratic candidates suffer an enthusiasm problem, especially when compared to the rallies and electric emotion of the anti-immigrant, anti-intellectual, or crude sexism that Donald Trump panders to. By and large, it’s been a relentless point of political commentators that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign suffered from a serious enthusiasm problem, and the same complaint is already a source of contention about several Democratic candidates today. Instead of being genuinely emotional or behaving like normal human beings, Democrats have dug their feet in on this issue. Democrats tirelessly paint themselves as stewards of the same old political process, and they’ve even leaned into the image and attempted to elevate paper-pushing democracy, dull and grey procedure, and emotionless droning testimony. You can see it in the tweets complaining about those asking for something interesting: like a bullied nerd comforting themselves with gatekeeping and elitism, Democrats shut less people out of political participation and act like they’re the real cool kids for getting excited about binders full of women, Congressional testimony, and the math behind tax plans. (On a related note, Elizabeth Warren’s brand just barely toes this line, and it’s interesting enough to warrant its own article, which will inevitably come the next time I see a tweet about her plans.)
On a functional level, if Democrats focused less on finger-wagging about “base instincts” and appealed to people in more dramatic ways, they would likely gain more enthusiastic support and win more elections. When it comes to impeachment specifically, the spectacle might even be the point. But more meaningfully than adopting a winning strategy because it might convince people to vote for good policies, perhaps Democrats could stand to remember that on a philosophical level, the actual foundations of this country are people, not documents, behaviors, or personality traits. Perhaps then we could separate being boring as hell from being a good advocate and lawmaker.
After all, when our news cycles are so short that we get political news the instant it happens, couldn’t it be just a little bit more dramatic?