Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) is right. Television cameras are terrible for democracy.
That's rarely been more true than this week, when senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) all have used Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court confirmation hearing as their opportunity to strut upon the national stage, grandstanding and playing to their conservative base with giant visual aids and trumped-up allegations that Jackson is soft on crime. The GOP senators have generated way more heat than light — and that is the point: Cruz was spotted at one point checking his Twitter mentions, apparently to see how his performance was playing online. The business of democracy once again seemed toxic, sludgy, and disreputable.
So Sasse spoke up.
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"Cameras change human behavior," he said. "I think we should recognize that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities." Sasse didn't name names, but Cruz was sitting right next to him — ears burning, presumably.
This isn't a new problem, of course. C-SPAN started providing video coverage of the House of Representatives in 1979, the exact same time that Newt Gingrich arrived in Congress from Georgia. Gingrich soon figured out that the video service was a great way to make angry, demagogic speeches — performances that would be captured on camera and distributed to the folks back at home, but which made little to no difference to the actual business of governing: He was yelling at an empty chamber.
It didn't matter. Gingrich used his camera time as a springboard to become speaker of the House, and laid a foundation for demagogues to follow. Does Donald Trump get to be president without his Pizza Hut commercials and The Apprentice? Is Tucker Carlson seen as a legitimate presidential contender if he sticks to magazine journalism? Almost certainly not.
"What if C-SPAN is not an anachronism, but an author of today's political chaos?" The Atlantic's David Graham asked in 2019, adding: "The ability to speak live on TV to the nation makes politics less about achieving things directly and more about scoring points.
Demagoguery has always been with us. And television isn't the only medium that can elevate politicians and other leaders more interested in rousing passions and attracting eyeballs than in doing good or acting as public servants; talk radio and social media do a pretty good job as well. But television sits at the center of our public life to a unique degree, and not always for the better. So Sasse is right to urge justices to keep cameras out of the Supreme Court. We might think about getting rid of them in the House and Senate, too. Frankly, our democracy could use a lot less jackassery.
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