What Is and Is Not Important in Politics
On not worshiping well dressed monsters.
I have an affinity for people who wear normal clothes in settings where there is great social pressure to wear fancy clothes. I don’t mean the settings where formality is called for as a necessary gesture of respect towards the subject of the event (weddings and funerals.) I mean settings where the fancy dress is part of a larger set of cues that are meant to delineate who should and should not be taken seriously; who is and is not meant to be here. In business settings, or country clubs, or fancy restaurants, the pressure to dress up does not serve a purpose with an underlying message of love. It serves as a sort of soft brand of segregation, meant to screen off those who really matter from the dirty hordes who don’t.
In such spaces, I admire those who say to themselves: Nah. This is dumb. This social pressure does not exist to elevate a value that should be prized. I will dress how I dress. I’m not talking about rock star types or egoists who dress outrageously downscale in order to draw attention to themselves. I’m talking about normal people whose allergy to bullshit outweighs the discomfort of all the sideways glances they will get when they intrude into a space that is, informally, reserved for their betters.
How Things Work is a reader-supported publication. If you like it, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This goes for political settings as well. Even more for political settings, because they involve people who are supposed to be doing the work of the public. The business there is being conducted on our behalf. We all belong there, physically or in spirit. Democracy purports to treasure all people equally. The banker and the lobbyist and the fisherman and the homeless person are all, in the philosophical eyes of democracy, the same. Being able to wake up in the morning and put on the normal clothes that you wear every day and go to City Hall or the statehouse or even the US Capitol and not have the inhabitants therein look down on you because of it is, I think, a small but important part of fostering healthy civic values.
So I want to talk about the stupid Senate dress code thing for a moment. Yes, this is an objectively minor issue that serves as red meat for the lowest sort of lurid media controversy-baiting and that has also already been well chewed over. But I think that it contains within it a meaningful element that is revealing of a deeper, sicker part of our politics that I want to mention. John Fetterman has for years walked around in hoodies and basketball shorts in every sort of setting, up to and including the US Senate, and god bless him for that. Good, I say. He looks like an American! But when Chuck Schumer formally relaxed the Senate dress code so Fetterman could go to work and do his job while dressing how he dresses, the anguished outcry ensued: first from politicians themselves, offended that their island of expensive suits would be sullied in such a way, and then from the punditry, which saw in this development an insult against the American ideal of “a hundred people in dark suits in a single room, controlling everything.”
Peggy Noonan and Kathleen Parker both wrote columns that adequately capture the dismay of a certain sort of lifelong Washington creature with the idea that the castle of soft social power that has has long cossetted them is being eroded by the debauchery of dirty Normal People—who they, of course, respect very much. “As little as I have loved Republicans the past few years, coinciding with the rise of our own little autocrat, at least Donald Trump knows how to dress,” is a sentence that Kathleen Parker wrote and published in a major newspaper. “I can’t imagine that even he would demean his office or his country by dressing down, as is now the ‘code’ for senators.”
Peggy Noonan, who has coasted for forty years now on the wistful remembrance of her old boss Ronald Reagan, was even more distraught. (I have spent years of my life hurling mockery and Peggy Noonan columns, but here I am going to take her argument seriously, because I think there is a serious point to be made, and also maybe I am getting old.) She unspools for readers her own personal vision of modern American history, a good look at how deeply it is possible to be deluded while still having a career in public affairs. After WW2, she writes, “We had a lot of brio and loved our wins, but we politely applauded for the other teams from the Olympic stands, and our diplomats and political figures—JFK, Reagan—walked through the world with a natural but also careful dignity. Which was good, because pre-eminence always entails obligations. You have to act the part. You have to present yourself with dignity. You have to comport yourself with class.”
But since the turn of the century, sadly, “We want to be respected but no longer think we need to be respectable. We are in a crisis of political comportment. We are witnessing the rise of the classless. Our politicians are becoming degenerate. This has been happening for a while but gets worse as the country coarsens. We are defining deviancy ever downward.”
Often, Peggy Noonan’s bizarre declarations can be dismissed by simply imagining her as Grey Gardens-type figure, sipping absinthe and pining for glory days past. In this case, though, she is articulating something that runs rampant among the political class. It is the deep belief that appearance trumps reality. That presentation is all. That politics is a movie, and should be interpreted through the standards of Hollywood. It is a view that many Very Influential People who make careers of shaping public opinion about politics embrace and transmit to the public. It is also a fundamentally morally bankrupt view of politics that is only possible believe if you yourself are fully insulated from the devastating substance of the actions that many of these Hollywood-esque political figures undertake.
According to this view, JFK and Reagan’s most important quality was their “dignity,” as evidenced by how they dressed and how they looked and talked with “class.” That is what we should be focused on. That is why we should elevate these people in the public memory. Unimportant things not worthy of inclusion in the conversation about their legacies include: Trying to assassinate foreign leaders, the purposeful spread of imperialism that caused dead bodies to litter the globe, the iron-fisted inhuman projection of American power at the expense of the poor, Reagan’s responsibility for launching the crisis of inequality that continues plaguing us to this day… forget that stuff! Look at how they comported themselves.
And America’s political crisis today? It is a crisis of comportment, you see. Donald Trump, for example, is not distasteful because he wanted to see the innocent Central Park Five executed or wanted to ban Muslims from entering America or directly caused hundreds of thousands of deaths by seeding an irrational hatred of mask-wearing during a pandemic; rather, he is distasteful because he is gauche. Hell, Ronald Reagan caused a lot of deaths by stubbornly ignoring AIDS, too, but he did it with brio. Who could stay mad at a man with such charisma? Look at the cut of his jib!
It sounds utterly absurd when you say it in this way, but this is what many, many people believe. It is this belief in the primacy of appearance, the conviction that decorum can cleanse all sins, that guides much of our political discourse like a deep sea current. The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush was wrong for violating decorum; the awful climate change protesters who disrupt public events are wrong because they violate decorum; and John Fetterman, who advocates and votes for policies that would help to reverse the crushing inequality that Ronald Reagan set loose in this country, is to be seen as an object of derision because his inexpensive clothes violate decorum. Ronald Reagan may have smashed labor power for a generation by firing the striking air traffic controllers and helped to prop up right wing death squads in foreign countries, but he wore a nice suit, and had a twinkle in his eye. And that is what matters.
I do not give a single fuck if John Fetterman goes to work in the US Senate naked every day for the remainder of his term, as long as he votes the right way. And I do not give a fuck if all the Republican senators wear the very finest tailored suits while they vote to outlaw abortion and help the rich and demonize immigrants and fight against unions and play footsie with gutter racists and suppress minority votes and deny climate change. And neither should you. If you care about clothing and style and brio more than the material effects of political policies on millions or billions of human beings across the world, you are sick. You are a sick, morally confused person. I hope that you are able to evolve past your childish obsession with shiny, unimportant things one day. But in the meantime, you shouldn’t be preaching to anyone about what is or is not important. Grow up.
Lotta important labor news lately. The UAW successfully lured Joe Biden to a picket line, which is a pretty big deal in terms of Overton Window Shifts, at least. I wrote a piece in The Guardian about the need to unionize Tesla in order to preserve the UAW’s power. Also: THE WGA WON ITS STRIKE. Big deal. We fucking won. The actors of SAG-AFTRA, though, are still on strike, and it ain’t over until they get a deal as well. You can find out where to join their picket lines here.
I wrote today’s unforgivably humorless essay several days after this topic fell out of the news cycle because I have been a bit backed up lately doing what I pray and believe is the last round of edits on my forthcoming book. It’s called “The Hammer,” and it is about the American labor movement, how it can save us, and why it hasn’t yet. If you are reading these words, I think you would enjoy the book. You can preorder it here or here or anywhere else that books are sold, and I would appreciate it if you did.
Thank you to everyone who subscribes to How Things Work. If you like reading this stuff, take a look in the mirror and say, “I’m a sicko.” Then, say to yourself, “Am I a paying subscriber? After all, Hamilton must buy food and shelter in order to continue writing things, and in order to do so he needs money from readers just like me.” A little something to think about. Blessed are the paid subscribers, who keep this site free for everyone else.