Have you noticed during televised football games, when the TV camera on a long boom sweeps over a mass of spectators, it emits some powerful mystical beam causing otherwise normal people to act in strange ways that make grandparents shake their heads?
Even fully-dressed people without painted faces are compelled to shout something indecipherable, to hold up one finger or a sign they prepared in hopes the camera would gaze upon them.
That’s what we all witnessed at the disturbing Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
No one would argue in our open democracy that C-SPAN or other network cameras should be barred from such proceedings. They allow millions of us to witness and participate in events of widely-varied import from the awful sights of 9/11 to the Super Bowl with ads more anticipated than the plays.
But no one can argue that the silent presence of such electronic paraphernalia doesn’t invisibly affect the event and the participants themselves in often-overlooked ways that do not unite or inspire.
As someone whose early childhood was television-free, I may be more attuned to this than those for whom it’s always been an accepted part of life like power car windows, microwaves and portable phones.
TV is said to make viewing experiences communal. It does in the sense that we all see pretty much the same thing at the same time and those sights may evoke similar feelings.
But watching through TV is also strangely isolating in that each viewing is experienced individually in a solo cone. Try this sometime: While watching television with another, say something that has nothing to do with what’s on. See how present they are to you. Chances are they’re enveloped in their own mystical beam.
Which is why the highly-rated, compulsive mass viewing of the Senate hearing was the opposite of unifying. Each player on-screen (their faces were, in fact, made-up, just not with team colors) played to their own audience, at times desperately.
Coming less than six weeks before the midterm elections, the senators’ behaviors resembled a verbal WWE match more than a serious confirmation hearing by the world’s self-proclaimed greatest deliberative body.
Which is great for evoking cheers and boos, which TV relishes. On social media, cable TV and in workplaces, each viewing audience reacted like opposing grandstands during a Saturday afternoon game. High school mock United Nations forums do better.
When his turn came, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham erupted: “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.”
Graham is up for re-election in 2020, so he had his home state audience to consider. Other committee members are up too, and Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, among others, have their sights on Democratic primary voters in their party’s crowded presidential field in 2020.
It’s way too easy, though, just to blame them. Here’s the catch: Almost all of those poor actors were sent to Congress by voters. They know that regardless of all the complaining and moaning from angry and disgruntled voters, nine out of 10 of those senators will be rewarded with re-election.
Such sad stridency hasn’t been forced on voters. They’re asking for it. And rewarding it. Watch a Trump MAGA rally. Or a Nancy Pelosi fundraiser. Oh, wait! Only wealthy donors are allowed in there.
Americans across the broad middle are angry and frustrated in large part because the political establishments on both sides have been so focused on their own self-interests and so blind and deaf to political pleas from beyond the Beltway.
Only the rich New Yorker was capable of detecting that in 2016. And he was rewarded for his sympathetic stridency with election to the White House by a stubborn plurality that wants the D.C. boat rocked, perhaps even sunk.
Donald Trump didn’t create the anger. He used it, as politicians have for millennia. And with his policies and actions, he’s played on it successfully most days ever since. Now, heading into this November and the one two years beyond, Democrats on the left have written their own extreme playbook to block a Supreme Court nominee and rouse their grandstand. So far, neither side can attract a majority.
The Founding Fathers disliked political parties. They held them off for a few decades. Eventually, however, human tribalism won out.
And with neither Democratic nor Republican parties functioning effectively in recent years, it is left to a slim sliver of voters to make the decisive collective calls.
The just-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose chair the parties now fight over, was the crucial Supreme Court swing vote. So once again, this Election Day will come down to swing voters, those independent-minded people whose crucial ballot choices vary by the issue and year.
Their political choices are not attractive ones. They must decide, in reality, whose bad behaviors they dislike the least.
No TV cameras can capture that.