PURE THEATER

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.

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38 Responses to “PURE THEATER”

  1. TAGinMO Says:

    "John McCain's biannual Soul Unburdenings."

    I need a cigarette.

  2. drouse Says:

    Deeds, not words. They could always try the way ol' Snarling Arlen did to save his sorry ass career. Go ahead and cross the aisle. There's three of them, just enough.

  3. disgusted Says:

    It is about time someone from the Republican party spoke up. I've been waiting for someone with a conscience to do so. While I agree with you that unless actions follow words it is not going to move us in the right direction. Perhaps those exact words will spark a conscience in some who heard them. Sitting silent is an endorsement of all that the liar-in-chief does. With 3 standing up and voicing disgust maybe more will follow. We can only hope.

  4. Aaron Says:

    Disgusted — sure, but he also has to vote for decency, not just say he likes it.

  5. anotherbozo Says:

    Total agreement here.

    But it brings to mind that words do have a function in mobilizing public opinion, dammit. I wish to hell Obama had shamed the Republicans on a daily basis–it might have moved the needle, if only a little bit. Or if only to reframe the debate at the local bar.

    And then if Hillary had known how to use them a tad more effectively.

    (sighs wistfully)

  6. Mike Says:

    Are you suggesting that Jeff Flake should steal Trump's phone to stop the tweeting? Or maybe cut out Trump's tongue to stop him from speaking? I'm just not sure what actions you want him to take to address Trump-style incivility in politics, which was Flake's main concern in the speech. If you want him to start opposing Trump policies, you weren't paying attention. Outside of a few areas (trade, for example) Flake does not disagree with Trump. His objection is one of civility in discourse, not policy content. Speaking up IS action when the issue at stake is civility in speech.

  7. Isaac Says:

    This is how I feel about all the people who think that Things Are Gonna Change just as soon as enough of us take to the streets.

  8. J.D. Says:

    @ Mike

    "Check the constitution" was a pretty big hint. This isn't simply a matter of incivility. If an elected official is using their office for personal gain and to bully civilians over petty grievances, remove them.

    Flake is one of 100 people in the country with the power to start such proceedings, but his perspective seems to be "even though Trump is a horrible person and a mortal threat to our democracy, let's not be too hasty."

  9. Ten Bears Says:

    As I suspected, while everyone has been all agog over some bimbo gone commando Corker, Flake and McCain just voted lock-step to give the bankers and insurers a free pass to continue ripping off the rubes.

  10. Kevskos Says:

    He does not have the power to start proceedings, that comes from the House, the Senate has the trial after impeachment. I would agree having R senators calling for impeachment would not hurt.

  11. Dean Says:

    "The speech by Senator Everyman causes three plot dominos to fall and create new narrative possibilities for the screenwriters."

    Too soon.

  12. Sy Says:

    Thank you. The genuflecting yesterday was frankly embarrassing. Flake's message — even if he believed any of his own words — was essentially self-serving, and I'm sure made him feel very good, especially when Twitter and the news started singing his praises. He/McCain/Corker et al. draw more of my ire than their peers because they seem to have some amount of awareness of the sheer boorishness of their party and leader, but at the end of the day are still dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, and will continue to make pretty speeches while voting to harm consumers by preventing them from suing banks, voting in racist and woefully unfit attorney generals, and all the rest. Taking a stand? Give me a break. They're just annoyed at Trump for unconvering who they've been all along.

  13. Haig Evans-Kavaldjian Says:

    Biannual —> semiannual? Periodic?

  14. Derek Scott Says:

    The reason why speechifying was able to stand in for action in The West Wing was that good faith was assumed — often even from antagonists — and therefore it was both reasonable and narratively convenient to simply imply the requisite followthrough.

    With these guys we basically have the inverse, in which the speeches are given in bad faith precisely because it is so much more politically convenient to merely imply the requisite followthrough.

  15. Tee Says:

    Only thing I disagree with here is the "pretty words" description. The speech may have some sort of feigned nobility, but it really wasn't very pretty.

    If we're gonna have to listen to old about-to-be-retiree Republicans talk about Trump, it'd be great if every speech didn't have the phrase "How can I explain myself to my grandkids?". It's like the "I have a daughter and a wife" line: tired and empty (just like the men who say it).

  16. mothra Says:

    They're just annoyed at Trump for uncovering who they've been all along.

    Bingo. Trump don't cover up the shit. He's just leaves it there, steaming and reeking up the place.

  17. mothra Says:

    Oh rats. I thought I italicized the quote from Sy's post. Sorry Sy.

  18. Leon Says:

    All style, no substance, yes, but what do you expect when they are ideologically quite similar. Huge tax cuts for the rich? Check. Strip healthcare from the poor and sick? Check.

    His revelation is that Trump is an oafish, bullying clown. He is obviously 100% correct in that assessment, but what was left out was that he's an oafish, bullying *Republican clown. And that's why he'll speechify while voting with Trump in lockstep.

    McCain managed to gum up the healthcare works, and Corker seems to be messing with tax reform a bit (TBD), but Flake is just tired of seeing what put the hard right Republicans into power so vividly displayed. The racism! The bullying! Oh my stars! But in the end, he and Trump want the same agenda passed.

    Though truth be told, I would love for the racists to go back to being closeted. The overt racism of this "President" and his followers is ruining my illusion/delusion that we're modern and/or civilized (a feeling I could get with Obama, a center-left politician with compassion, empathy, and intelligence, three things sorely lacking in the current resident of 1600 Penn).

  19. Leon Says:

    … society. I miss that delusion.

    (Ed, an edit function would be nice, if you can pull some strings.)

  20. Major Kong Says:

    "Or maybe cut out Trump's tongue to stop him from speaking?"

    Don't tease me like that Mike.

  21. jcastarz Says:

    "Disgusted — sure, but he also has to vote for decency, not just say he likes it."

    – Amen to that.

  22. Bitter Scribe Says:

    Speeches have always been important, at least as a way for politicians to introduce themselves. Obama got on people's radar with a speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic convention. People really started swooning over Sarah Palin after her acceptance speech in 2008.

    As for Flake, he's bravely upholding the principle of not losing an election.

  23. Brian M Says:

    and, of course, Flakeepoo is part of the cabal (along with Crazy Warmonger Grandpa) of "mainstream" Republicans and Democrats (Hillary!) who gave us the Iraq debacle and twenty years of war, including war under the Peace Prize President.

    Daniel Larison nails him pretty seriously.

    "A speechifying anti-Trumpism, distant from the fray, will always be self-regarding and self-deceiving — unwilling to see how the Iraq War discredited both the Bushist and McCainian styles of right-wing internationalism, incapable of addressing the economic disappointments that turned voters against Flake’s Goldwaterite libertarianism and Romney’s “trust me, I’m a businessman” promises. Only in actual political competition can the Republican elite reckon with why it lost its party, and how it might win again without succumbing to Trumpian indecency."

    THEY, along with their Wall Street and Cruise Missile Liberal counterparts in the Democratic "Party" helped create Trumpism.

  24. mago Says:

    Flake. The name says it all.

  25. c u n d gulag Says:

    Don't believe a word any conservative ever says.
    They lie.
    All of them.
    Never mind every time their lips move, they lie internally to prepare to lie the next time their lips move.
    Lies are like O2 to them.

    So, don't listen to them, punTWITS!
    Watch what they do, instead.
    Me thinks they do protest too much…

    All three – McCain, Corker, Flake – blasted t-RUMPLE-THIN-sKKKin, publicly.
    But they still voted, and continue to do so, for what their (Not-do?) Dear Leader wants.
    Pavlov had his dogs,
    t-RUMPLE has his bitches

    All three of your new GOP renegades, PUNTWITS, just voted to fuck every non-rich person in the country – and shove broken glass, metal shavings, and small pieces of gravel up their asses – by NOT allowing people to get together for "Class Action" lawsuits.

    So, punTWITS, spare me your wordy columns praising faux renegades who are merely grandstanding – or, greasing the wheels to run for POTUS in 2020; either by primarying T-RUMP, or Pence ( if t-RUMP dies. No chance they'll impeach him, or use the 25th Amendment).

    Judge them not by their words, mein hypnotized and propagandized punTWITS, but what they do – to royally fuck every non-rich person.

    But, of course, no stupid or truly evil thing they do, will ever measure up to Hillary's e-mails.

    From "e pluribis unum," to, "The horror… the horror… the horror…."
    And, "Heil t-RUMPLE-THIN-sKKKin!!!"

  26. HoosierPoli Says:

    In Corker's guns-blazing interview yesterday, literally all he suggested doing was…holding hearings. It's LIKE doing nothing, but worse.

  27. Bessemer Mucho Says:

    I thought Flake was about to be primaried by a real Trump-humper. All this means is that the senate is being cleansed of people who (like most Americans, I continue to hope) are repulsed by Trump. The floor votes are likely to turn out the same as before, but it will be enthusiastic 'ayes' instead of tentative dubious 'ayes'. WASF.

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  29. doug Says:

    and not even decent theatre, at that….

    I don't buy his reasons for leaving, at all. Even if he thought he would lose, why not campaign and explain his positions? Hell, he has been politician a long while. Is not that what politicians do?

    More like 'Pure Crap'….

  30. Tim H. Says:

    I would be more impressed if they stayed and contested the primaries, the GOP is bad enough without it being reimagined by Bannon, with no resistance. Looks like the part of the story where the wasp bursts out of the paralyzed cicada…

  31. Safety Man! Says:

    I’m starting to believe they really are that dillusional. I was reading an article today that the GOP has released a Super PAC that aims to discredit Bannon by, among other things highlighting his ties to White Nationalists… They really don’t get that SKYnet IS the virus…

  32. Boddy Says:

    Curious about your opinion on the Drexel/George Cicciariello-Maher suspension situation.

    And as an Arizona Native who will effectively NEVER move back because of how horrible the politics are in my home state, I can say unequivocally that Flake's "retirement" will inevitably lead to a complete fucking psychopath being elected to represent the garbage humans and doddering shitbag senior citizens who live in white enclaves and demand fucking terraforming a desert because they don't like winters, but also hate brown people. I actually pray for a time when climate change makes living in Phoenix ludicrously expensive, and they all move literally underground and become mole people to avoid the heat.

    Also, I used to frequent LnC and BME. Long time listener, first time caller. S'up?

  33. democommie Says:

    "Looks like the part of the story where the wasp bursts out of the paralyzed cicada…"

    Although I have no doubt that it's based on something like that I see it more as the Motherkillerfucker's in "Alien" spawn bursting out of John Hurt's abdomen while his horrified crewmates watch*.

    * I heard on the radio this morning that during that scene, Sigourney Weaver was the only cast member, other than Hurt who knew what was coming and that the looks on the other actors' faces are ones of genuine shock and horror.

  34. Tim H. Says:

    democommie, for another take on that concept have a look at Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild", the relationship between the human and alien societies described seems more positive than the one developing between the .001% and everyone else…

  35. democommie Says:

    @Tim H.:

    Will try to do so. I think it's safe to say that the relationship between us and the Corporate Gollum is something like that between Plasmodium fulciparum and the human race.

    @ Ed:

    "Pure Drama"? I think it's more like, Noh Drama or Duh Farce.

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  37. Mistergizmo Says:

    Words exhort people to do something. Votes require people to do something.

  38. Dave Dell Says:

    Clint Eastwood couldn't do 10 minutes of political speechifying, let alone an hour and holy crap!!!! 4 hours?

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