“A huge part of why this institution doesn’t work well is because we have cameras everywhere,” U.S. Senator Ben Sasse said of the United States Congress last week during the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson—President Joe Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court. The purpose of hearings like this is, of course, to vet a nominee’s qualifications as a judge. Yet in the media spotlight, Jackson, the first Black woman ever nominated to the Court, faced a range of questions, at times hostile, about politically charged topics, such as the academic framework of critical race theory, the definition of woman, and child sexual abuse. “We should recognize,” said Sasse—a Republican who ultimately voted against Jackson’s confirmation—“that the jackassery we often see around here is partly because of people mugging for short-term camera opportunities.” Sasse’s argument—made during the hearings with the cameras on—is that episodes of theatrical confrontation, rehearsed speech, and bad faith among his fellow Republican senators weren’t so much driven by their political agenda, or personal character, as by the “camera opportunities” of the proceedings. It’s a dynamic we all might recognize in political life. But how exactly does it work?
Lance Strate is a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. Strate agrees that the performances of Republican senators at Jackson’s hearing say less about their political or personal tendencies and more about the media ecosystem around them. As Strate sees it, the crux of this reality is that politicians—and not just in America but around the world—are increasingly performing for multiple audiences, in more and more spaces, with less privacy and fewer opportunities to do the work of government without being recorded. The expanding presence of media in politics, and the growing incentive for politicians to use it, may give citizens more information about elected officials—including a better sense of what they’re for and who they are—but it also alters what they end up doing. Politicians know they need to take advantage of the media ecosystem, Strate says, but the media ecosystem can end up changing their behavior in ways they don’t plan—and citizens don’t recognize.
Graham Vyse: Do you see the performances in U.S. Senate’s confirmation hearings for Judge Jackson as normal business now, or did anything about them strike you as novel?
Lance Strate: I don’t think there was anything exceptionally novel. They reflected a continuing intensification of the biases of electronic media, the dramatic acting out of political positions, and the use of cameras for purposes other than what the situation calls for. Those hearings were supposed to be an interview process to determine whether Jackson was qualified to sit on the Supreme Court, but much of what went on had nothing to do with that. Senators were going for sound bites to be played on news programs later on, which involved being theatrical, being confrontational, expressing an ideological position, and often making speeches without asking questions.
When Republican senators ask something ridiculous like, Can you provide a definition for the word woman? they know Jackson isn’t going to give the kind of reply conservatives are looking for. [Jackson answered that she wasn’t a biologist and couldn’t provide a definition of woman, adding that part of her job as a judge was to assess disagreements over definitions.] She’s going to give legalistic answers, and they’re going to sound evasive, even though they’re perfectly appropriate for the situation and for someone in her profession. They’re also going to play poorly on television.
Republican senators are trying to look like they’re standing up for principle—like they’re principled interrogators—and make her look evasive and suspect in the eyes of their audience.
Vyse: Now, the Democratic senator Cory Booker gave celebrated Jackson and her accomplishments during the hearings. A lot of her admirers found that moving, but it would also be an example of performing rather than asking the kind of vetting questions the proceedings are for?