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Salvo 10.26.2020

OK, Senator

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Amy Coney Barrett puts the nail in the coffin of TV politics.

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Judge Amy Barrett is 48 years old. Much has been made of that fact’s implications for how long she might serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. But there are also other ways her relative youth showed up in the confirmation hearings. One of the most important was her absolutely minimal participation in the spectacle of the hearing.

Her calm remove from theatrical grandstanding—both by Republicans and Democrats—signals a changing of the generational guard and reveals the way our media environment is transforming, from a landscape shaped primarily by television and its modes of production and influence to a landscape shaped primarily by digital communication, with its very different modes of production and influence.

The Judiciary Committee’s leadership is an average of 80 years old. Lindsey Graham, at 65, is the youngster among them and the only one not yet 80. The media environment that shaped the political careers of Graham, Leahy, Feinstein, and Grassley is television. They came to power through televised campaigns and have become household names beyond their states in no small part because of frequent appearances on television.

But television is not a neutral arbiter. Structurally (and it needs to be said right away how much I owe here to Marshall McLuhan for prophetic thought about the causal powers of media, and to James Poulos’s work on this website), television casts before us images from the imagination. Producers may use reality as the raw materials for the narrative they convey, but it’s always imagination that’s calling the tune and confected narratives that are the product. Televised politics favors this same high contrivance and adds high dudgeon, fast talking, and focus-group-tested one-liners.

It is theater. It is not real. The true politics of Judge Barrett’s appointment are not what we saw on TV: no, the real politics happened elsewhere and at another time. If the votes were not already whipped and counted, the hearings would not be happening. Mitch McConnell is one of the great masters of the Senate and would not have let the show start if the ending were not certain.

That’s probably been true of the vast majority of these hearings. On the rare occasions the hearings have mattered, it’s because the spectacular fiction of television leaked into reality. Here I’m thinking of the infamous Bork and Thomas hearings. But 2018’s Kavanaugh hearings may have been the last hurrah; the drama was still there, but the outcome was entirely unchanged by the committee’s hearings and, for our trouble, quite a number of families (not to mention the whole country) were dragged through sordid muck.

That is to say, what’s different this time, it seems to me, is that Amy Barrett is not playing along, or is only playing along to the absolutely minimal degree necessary while signaling that she knows this is not real. Barrett is 32 years younger than the committee leadership. And what that means is the media environment that has shaped the psychology of Barrett is markedly different from that which shaped those who put us all through another of these pointless television exercises.

Doubtless, Barrett’s calm demeanor and lack of notes indicated that she has an excellent command over the material. Her impressive resumé suggests as much. But I think it may also signal, as one generation finally starts to hand the reins off to another, that the contrived-for-television spectacle judicial confirmation hearings have become is over. Her blank pad and impassible countenance may signal, as much as anything could in such a mandatory appearance, that this event is not real. It is television. And television is over. If she’s not playing along, maybe we won’t…if not this time, then next time. After all, the Democrats seem to be moving backward; with Murkowski a “yes” vote for confirmation at the conclusion of the hearings and the polls now favoring Barrett’s confirmation, even Senator Booker might decide he’d be better off not playing Spartacus anymore.

I will not mourn its passing, will not shed one tear for the death of confirmation-as-TV-spectacle if indeed the time has finally come. Our political and constitutional processes are not well served by these television hearings. Consider the past. Barrett will succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg succeeded Justice Byron White, who was nominated to the court in 1962 at the inauguration of television politics by President Kennedy. White was confirmed by voice vote a few hours after a brief committee hearing. That was not terribly unusual. Quite a number of justices have been confirmed within a few days after relatively short committee hearings and few questions.

What would be lost if we went back to something like that, with senators and the president conferring largely behind the scenes—questioning the nominees in both public and private settings, but without the psychodrama of senators displaying their embarrassing ignorance of the Constitution for the whole country in an extended civic miseducation? The likely answer is written on Amy Barrett’s note pad.

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