Some part of it is surely psychological—a working out, in public, of the fact that they have low regard for the institution because it is populated by people like them, and no regard for the political process because it allows people like them to rise. Here is a rule of life: Deep down mooks always know they’re mooks, the shallow know they’re shallow, the dumb know they’re dumb. Their constant attempts not to let you see what they know leads to much bad behavior.
A larger part would be that they’re certain the people back home like it. Mr. Mullin was sharply dressed, in a crisp white shirt camera-ready for his moment. He didn’t expect to be outfaced by the union guy: “You stand your butt up.” Mr. Mullin was showing his base how rough, tough and macho he is. He’s not gonna let any fancy deep-state rules on decorum dictate to him; he’s real, authentic, a man. Which he can show by punching and kicking people. Here, watch! I wonder if he’s right that the people of Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain, like that sort of thing. It isn’t really a compliment to them that he thinks they would.
I think the biggest reason for Congress’s behavioral deterioration may be simply that all Americans now, especially people in politics, are media-addled. Lawmakers don’t experience themselves as political figures doing the business of the nation but as actors in a streaming series called “Populism!” on some tacky cable network, and they have to keep it lively and keep the action going. They are celebrities back home, like Real Housewives, famous for being famous and eager to do selfies to show how salt-of-the-earth they are. Once I talked to the producer of a weekly TV drama and told him I found it interesting that his actors, in their scenes, always seem to show they’re thinking. Before answering a question they linger and take time, as if they’re trying to show how thinking looks. He smiled and said no, it’s just an actor’s trick, they’re trying to keep the camera on their face.
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That’s what the members are doing, keeping the camera on their face.
Here we point out why all this is bad for America. It makes democracy look cruddy and small, like something shrinking before our eyes. It makes our leaders look second rate and insubstantial. It disheartens parents, who are trying to create rules for the road for their children. It disheartens normal Americans who are worried for their country and see in its increasing wildness and lack of dignity a sign that we may not be able to hold together in the long term.
And of course it pleases our competitors in the world. They think we’re a sinking nation, poorly educated, riven by race, seeking refuge in drugs. The embarrassing behavior of our political leaders is, to them, more evidence of our breakup. Do you wish you knew Chinese president Xi’s thoughts this week as he traveled through a San Francisco bedecked in Chinese flags? I’ll tell you. He thinks we are on a long slide, our time is over, America was the 20th century but this is the 21st.
We have to look at ourselves here. Why do we accept this? Do we think this is all just a show called “Populism”? How’s it going to end? Aren’t these questions earnest? It’s embarrassing to be earnest, isn’t it?”