PURE THEATER

Posted in Rants on October 25th, 2017 by Ed

Maybe this is all Aaron Sorkin's fault.

The Big Speech has always been a powerful tool in politics, and no format is more consistently attention-getting than the public J'accuse/Emperor has No Clothes soliloquy. Speechifying probably peaked in American politics in the second half of the 19th Century, when (aided by the lack of widespread literacy or any form of electronic entertainment) the "Four hour speech" was a cornerstone of party and campaign strategy. Have you ever tried to talk about something for an hour or more without interruption? It's not easy. Now imagine you're an 1870s machine politician who probably isn't real bright but knows a few big words. You can imagine the kind of empty yet florid rhetoric that produced.

We are looping back to the Gilded Age in more ways than it is comfortable to recognize, notably with our zeal for deregulation, immigration restriction, and wealth worship. And I have to wonder if even in this noisy media environment (which I suppose is weakly analagous to the cacaphony of newspapers around the turn of the 20th century) elected officials are rediscovering the power of the pretty, totally empty monologue.

It works, after all. Look at the fawning media coverage Flake's two years too late declaration that he has some very important principles for which he absolutely MUST stand up right after he works with Mitch McConnell to steal a Supreme Court appointment and OK maybe let's hold out a few more months to see if we can get some tax cuts out of this too. No? Well voting to allow forced arbitration for nursing home patients is a pretty good consolation prize.

This generation of elected officials may simply have watched far too much West Wing and other politics-themed dramas. In those, the big dramatic speech is always an integral part of the story. It keeps the audience's attention and is a really basic device for advancing the plot because after the Big Speech something changes. The speech by Senator Everyman causes three plot dominos to fall and create new narrative possibilities for the screenwriters. In that world you change things by giving a big, earnest, hushed-audience speech. After it, things are different.

In real life, speeches like Flake's, or John McCain's biannual Soul Unburdenings, serve a function. But they don't serve that function. They don't change anything. You give them, pundits slobber on you, your positive rating goes up a little in focus groups, and you get free advertising for a couple days. What doesn't happen is anything meaningful. It changes nothing. People admire briefly the pretty words and then it disappears. And whatever grave social ills it inveighed against are right where you left them. Maybe a few more people glanced at them for a minute, but nothing changed.

Change happens in government when people do things, not when they talk about the things they don't like. But, as doing things is hard, talking about them is a tempting alternative. That is not new. What is new is the troubling sense that these people believe that talking pretty is the substantive part. It isn't. It's some varnish. It's a top layer. It's for the cheap seats and the casual observer who doesn't care to hear about the process behind the rhetorical curtain. We see United States Senators who give every indication of believing that after they express their vaunted principles, they dust off their hands and declare, "Job well done!"

Thank you for the pretty words, Senator Flake. But you have not done anything. Talking didn't solve the problem. Do something. If you need some hints, consult the Constitution.