These days, members of Congress find it advantageous to be show horses rather than work horses. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this preference better than the protests themselves – namely the crash at the Supreme Court last week that saw 17 House Democrats arrested for traffic blocking while expressing their support for the right to abortion.
Protests, even civil disobedience, are an important part of free speech and our broader First Amendment culture. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and with it the constitutional right to abortion has recently galvanized millions of Americans who passionately oppose expressing their opinions via this revered democratic tradition. Such protests can be an important tool for influencing the government and persuading the powerful.
Such protests can be an important tool for influencing the government and persuading the powerful. But members of Congress are the government. They are the powerful.
But members of Congress are the government. They are the powerful. As many protesting lawmakers deny it — including the event’s star performer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y. – it was more of a publicity stunt than an activity to alter any outcome. Judges are supposed to be impervious to that kind of political influence, after all. And members of Congress are the only Americans capable of legislating nationally to achieve their political goals.
Even everyone in the target audience was not entertained by the theater. New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, a fellow progressive Democrat, chastised Ocasio-Cortez after the event for not devoting enough attention to her district. Another activist fired The Ocasio-Cortez maneuver as a “performative art of resistance”.
Indeed, viral footage of the abortion protest was dominated by Ocasio-Cortez’s assault on the cameras. She tweeted the video of herself escorted by the police with a smile on her face. She and several other members of “the brigade,” a nickname for a group of liberal lawmakers, seemed self-satisfied in a picture together the day after the event.
The biggest showboating might have come when Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., crossed their hands behind their backs as if in handcuffs during the protest. It first became clear they weren’t when Ocasio-Cortez raised her fist in the air as she was led away. (The Queens lawmaker denied she was trying to be deceptive or be handcuffed, but instead said she followed best practices to avoid escalating an encounter with police.)
Either way, it was clear that getting arrested was the whole point of the episode. The exercise was conducted in coordination with a progressive organization that Ocasio-Cortez described as asking his colleagues to “submit to arrest in the Supreme Court” and which live-streamed the protest at the time. Hours after his arrest, Ocasio-Cortez was using the incident to raise money for like-minded groups.
Nothing in the Dobbs decision prevents lawmakers from protecting that access by law if that’s what these 17 lawmakers were to do, rather than wasting the time of the Capitol police during one of the last days before the House’s August recess. But progressive members would rather hang around the Supreme Court and make maximalist demands than forge consensus and expand the abortion protection coalition.
Although Ocasio-Cortez has called for legislation, saying, “Congress must fully exercise our legal authority,” she failed to translate that sense of urgency into backing bills that can actually pass. There are at least three senators who would be open to a narrowly tailored bill codifying Roe, but think the Squad’s preferred measure would go far beyond that in terms of rolling back the abortion restrictions the court had authorized. before Dobbs.
To be fair, it’s not just progressives who have replaced persuasion and policy-making with performance art, and this practice is not limited to the issue of abortion.
Many conservatives are fanning the flames of outrage among supporters and opponents, entering into petty quarrels and engage in perpetual student-style activism in what can be an emotionally satisfying and electorally successful exercise. Statehood, however, is not.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., was explicitly pandering to these students when he launched his latest dish of red meat at Turning Point USA’s annual student action summit on Friday, saying, “my pronoun is ‘kiss my ass’.” Not exactly the stuff of the Gettysburg address.
But politicians have discovered over the years that inflammatory messages are often the best for making campaign money. Now it can become their whole personality. That’s as true for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., as it is for Ocasio-Cortez, who has found social media to be a more important platform than any official role in Congress. There is a new generation of conservative politicians who are attracting attention by “owning the libs” and other ways of generating publicity that don’t involve policy making.
When members of Congress prioritize social media influence or cable news over legislation, when getting kicked off all your committees is less of a hindrance to your political ambitions than the prospect of getting fired of Twitter, governing is not the goal.
Capitol Hill has become a place where attention-seeking personalities can move in or be removed only at great expense. None of this encourages doing the hard work of collaborating, compromising and writing careful laws, even if the artists involved admire each other’s performance.
In this climate, even well-meaning members of Congress can confuse their roles with those of their militant allies. But they weren’t sent to Washington by their constituents just to agitate; they were sent to legislate. The failure to understand the difference places something closely resembling handcuffs on the congressional action, no matter how hard it may seem on camera.