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 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’re looping back to the Gilded Age in more ways than it’s comfortable to recognize, notably with our zeal for deregulation, immigration restriction and wealth worship. And it seems that in this noisy media environment, elected officials are rediscovering the power of the pretty but totally empty monologue.
It works, after all. Look at the fawning media coverage of GOP Sen. Jeff Flake’s speech Tuesday. In reality, it was little more than a 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 hold out a few more months to see if he can get some tax cuts out of it too. If not, 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 politically themed dramas. In such shows and films, the big, earnest, dramatic speech is always an integral part of the story. It keeps the audience’s attention and is a basic device for advancing the plot – because after the Big Speech, something always changes. The speech by Sen. Everyman causes three plot dominos to fall and opens up new narrative possibilities for the screenwriters.
In real life, speeches like Flake’s – or John McCain’s biannual soul unburdenings – serve a function: They get them attention and allow onlookers to have a feel-good moment. But they don’t advance the plot. They don’t change anything. When non-Sorkin elected officials give pretty speeches, pundits slobber on them, their approval numbers maybe get a bump and they get free advertising in the media for a couple days. But that’s it. People admire briefly the pretty words, and then the whole thing disappears, leaving whatever grave social ills the speech inveighed against right where they were.
The list of alternatives to just talking is long if you happen to be a United States senator: Investigate. Engage in oversight of the executive branch around the president. Hold the president accountable for specific deadlines and promises, like refusing to vote on his agenda items until questions about his statements have been answered satisfactorily. Don’t budge on confirming presidential appointees until he proves he can act like an adult. Or, if you’re feeling really punchy, end the charade and work with allies in the House to begin the process that’s on so many Americans’ holiday wish list. Hint: it rhymes with “flimpeachment.”
Instead, Flake took care to reassure us, in the wake of his speech, that impeaching the president is not on his mind. If the words he said on the Senate floor Tuesday were true, how could that be? Well, it helps if you see the process of delivering Big Speeches – those described as “powerful” in headline after headline – as empty rhetoric. Of course impeachment isn’t on Flake’s mind, because his criticism is strictly theater.
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 talking pretty is the substantive part. It isn’t. It’s varnish. It’s for the casual observer who doesn’t care to hear about the process behind the rhetorical curtain. And yet so many top lawmakers right now are indicating they believe that after they express their vaunted principles, they can dust off their hands and declare, “Job well done!”
Thank you for the pretty words, Sen. Flake. But you have not done anything. Talking won’t solve the problem of President Trump – doing something will. If you need some ideas, consult the Constitution.