Comparing modern American society to George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece 1984 is all the rage. We live in a fact-less world, it seems, and try as the truth might, it struggles to cut through a cloud of government-sanctioned confusion. We are all Winston Smith, whether we're battling side-by-side lies or "fake news" run amok.
Luckily, we have a tool that did not exist in Orwell's nightmare: C-SPAN.
For 38 years, C-SPAN has televised the inner workings of American government to its citizens. Its first broadcast in 1979 sent a speech by then-Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) beaming into the homes of three million Americans; the following year, the network added its signature call-in program, which still exists to allow average citizens to opine upon the actions of their legislators.
Today, C-SPAN reaches 100 million homes nationwide via its TV channel, in addition to the globally available livestreams it offers online. If you're at all concerned with what your lawmakers are doing on Capitol Hill, C-SPAN should be your lifeblood. I've probably watched more hours of C-SPAN this year than of any other broadcaster. I say that with pride.
Governing is complicated (as our president recently learned). It's protracted and messy and full of inanities left over from the founding of our nation 200-plus years ago. Even the most informed among us may skip over phrases like "budget reconciliation" or "motion to filibuster" or "Senate parliamentarian" in our daily news digests, preferring instead to get the gist of things and leave out the ugly details. But if we're to avoid an Orwellian world, those details matter, and C-SPAN is invaluable because it magnifies them to the nth degree.
Take, for example, the confirmation vote of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch earlier this month. You probably know the basics: The seat was Judge Merrick Garland's until it wasn't; Donald Trump won the election and nominated the conservative Gorsuch, who faced long odds in the Senate due to Democratic obstruction; fed up with their liberal counterparts, Senate Republicans voted to change upper-chamber rules; yada yada yada, Gorsuch was confirmed.
Thing is, a lot happened in that "yada yada yada" process. The Senate didn't vote as an amorphous, unaccountable body to change the rules of consensus; 51 individual senators (all Republicans) stood up and said "aye" to indicate their approval. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried twice to stop the vote, and twice he was denied. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), approached a lectern and, voice deep and booming as ever, called for a historic change to the rules of lawmaking. And 48 Democrats stood up one by one and said "no" to an outcome they knew was inevitable, making a functionally useless statement.
If you read the stories afterwards, you got the senators' spin on things. McConnell went nuclear "for the sake of our country," Fox News recounted him saying. Schumer called for a useless delay vote in an attempt to preserve "the guardrail of our democracy," The Atlantic relayed.
But if you watched C-SPAN, you saw the truth. There was no noble battle, no sweeping rhetoric meant to inspire. There were no tied hands, but simply an abundance of personal agency and partisan bitterness. It wasn't the push of a button that triggered the "nuclear option"; it was 99 voices, calling "aye" or "no" over and over again for roughly two hours until a preordained outcome was made official.
C-SPAN shows governing as it is: the deliberate actions of dozens of elected representatives, real-live people you can identify and call or email or tweet at or confront via a town hall or a ballot box. It shows lawmakers as they are, too, whether it's the pessimism of McConnell and Schumer, the defiance of Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) during Cabinet confirmation hearings earlier this year, the straight shooting of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) during the Gorsuch debate, or the poignant messaging of his fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott (R), last summer.
C-SPAN shows you who's running the country, and how. It cuts through the partisan doublethink and the spin-zone telescreens and shows you those facts you crave, up close. It's sparse and tedious and wholly undramatic, because that's what the truth of governing is.
This week alone, there are two dates looming overhead in Washington: a deadline to fund the government by Friday, and the 100th day of the Trump administration Saturday. Congress is finally back in session after a two-week recess, and the legislative and executive branches of government are now scrambling to check some big things off the to-do list.
This isn't 1984. Take advantage.