“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.

Louisville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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 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?

Strate: Absolutely. The Democratic senator Jon Ossoff also asked her to talk about her family’s background in law enforcement—and that’s great, but is it really relevant? Yes, you get speechmaking and softball questions too.

Vyse: What are the main drivers of this kind of performative politics, do you think?

Strate: There’s always been a performative component to politics, especially in democratic politics, where you want to appeal to audiences. Still, it used to be that this kind of thing took place in a limited set of situations, when politicians addressed the public. Deliberations were held privately behind closed doors—in what Lin-Manuel Miranda would call the “room where it happens.” Nowadays it’s very difficult to find a room where it happens—a room that’s not bugged, or a room from which people don’t divulge a lot of what went on. There’s a lot to be said for transparency, and there have always been reporters, but there’s something about the cameras that brings out the dramatic.

The characteristics of print media require a degree of logical coherence and concern for the content, whereas the characteristics of electronic media are more about grabbing and keeping your attention.

Vyse: —and sometimes “jackassery,” as Sasse put it?

Strate: Yes, that’s a perfectly legitimate term. Mugging for the cameras becomes very difficult to avoid if you want to be successful in politics, especially in presidential politics and, to a lesser extent, congressional politics.

Vyse: As you say, there’s a tension between the idea of transparency and the fact that media doesn’t just reveal but changes political reality. How do you think about that tension?

Strate: When people know they’re being scrutinized, they tend to behave in more honest and principled ways, knowing that bad behavior will be apparent and that they may be shamed and condemned for it. At the same time, elected officials need a certain measure of private space to negotiate, make deals, and have the freedom to engage with their political opponents. Not having that becomes a problem, especially given the other big effect of the media environment—increased political polarization and ideological separation.

Camilo Jimenez

Vyse: What do you see as the most important developments in media to affect U.S. politics? I imagine the rise of television would have to be up there.

Strate: Television was unprecedented in the way it created a shared information environment. Prior to TV—and broadcasting generally—the American republic was built on a foundation of typography, with the printing press as the basis of the media environment. Early on, political parties printed their own documents; later, you had large newspapers, but they had partisan leanings. The press had a local bent, because newspapers were largely city-based, and then you had local face-to-face communication mediated through political parties. TV made it so that parties weren’t in control of politicians anymore. We used to criticize things happening behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms—party bosses deciding who would run and who wouldn’t.

Vyse: So, television helped create political polarization?

Strate: It’s the performative style of politics that comes from television, not the polarization. Television was actually a unifying force in most respects. Another word for a TV set is a “monitor”; it’s all about seeing the image.

Outrage became one of the great currencies. Facebook knows it can get people scrolling and keep them scrolling by getting them angry.

This didn’t start with television, of course. When I was in school, we all heard about how Abraham Lincoln was homely. That wasn’t said about previous presidents. Lincoln was the first elected as photography was starting to become widespread. He grew his beard after he was elected, because he thought it would look more presidential. The southern newspapers called him ugly during the campaign.

Still, it wasn’t until television that images became such a powerful influence. The last bald president was Dwight Eisenhower. Right after him, John F. Kennedy set the standard for good hair; now you have to have good hair to be president. Many people don’t remember that Joe Biden was balding a few decades ago; he seems to have addressed that. You have to look good—though not too good, since someone who’s extremely good-looking might be suspect. It’s helpful to have soft features and a casual voice that doesn’t sound strident.

Anthony Garand

Howard Dean’s “scream” in 2004 is a good example of how some things that play well in real life can look ridiculous on television. Dean was running for the Democratic nomination for president, and his supporters were a little down, because he wasn’t doing as well as they expected at that moment. He was speaking to a friendly audience—trying to energize them, not persuade them. He gave this rousing speech, rising to a yelling crescendo. It was appropriate for that situation—and the exact opposite of what TV is looking for. His campaign never recovered.

The characteristics of print media require a degree of logical coherence and concern for the content, whereas the characteristics of electronic media are more about grabbing and keeping your attention. It’s true of television, and it extends to most of the internet, particularly social media.

We saw in the 2016 presidential campaign that cable news did enormously better than it had previously been doing—with ratings and profit margins—even though the coverage was considerably worse for American democracy. Outrage became one of the great currencies. Facebook knows it can get people scrolling and keep them scrolling by getting them angry.

The difference between TV and social media is in what gets the most attention: On TV, it used to be the least objectionable content—it stayed away from extremes to avoid turning off a large segment of the audience—but the rise of cable channels helped lead to increased polarization. With cable news, you can attract the largest segment of the audience by courting the most outrageous and objectionable content.

Everyone says stupid things. Everyone slips up. But a constant gotcha environment may, in some cases, induce folks to be overly bland or overly careful. In other cases, it may reward the extremists in our polarized environment who’ll just say anything—with people seeing them as authentic.

Vyse: As you say, some performance should be expected in democratic politics. When politicians give speeches or debate their opponents, no one faults them for putting on a show. The problem is contextual. Where else, other than Supreme Court hearings, do you see the media-driven incentives of electoral politics being an issue?

Strate: Consider the political-party conventions held every four years. They used to be an opportunity for leaders to get together and go over their platform and organization. What happens when they’re televised is they become public spectacles—made for TV.

So much of this is bad for democracy. We want transparency, but we don’t necessarily want monitoring. We should know all about our leaders—who they are, what their financial situations are, where they get their campaign donations. That’s about giving citizens information. But when they’re constantly on camera—as they are during congressional hearings—that’s when we get the kind of jackassery and self-consciousness that erodes democratic life.

Vyse: Still, many would say those cameras enhance the democratic process. When journalists are able to show their audiences the sights and sounds of politics, there’s obviously a potential commercial benefit to news organizations, but there’s also a civic rationale: They’re giving a fuller picture of what’s going on in government. How would you respond to that?

Chris Barbalis

Strate: People need a certain amount of privacy. It’s not just for the bedroom or the bathroom. It’s also for getting business done—for getting results. In negotiations, you need to be able to sit down with people and not have everything you’re doing be monitored. We certainly need to know what’s going on and what the results are, but we don’t need to know everything being said. Everyone says stupid things. Everyone slips up. But a constant gotcha environment may, in some cases, induce folks to be overly bland or overly careful. In other cases, it may reward the extremists in our polarized environment who’ll just say anything—with people seeing them as authentic. The reality is that their so-called “gaffes” are sometimes planned in advance.

Vyse: You raise the question of authenticity. There’s often an assumption that putting more cameras on politicians gives the country a more authentic view of their leaders than an older print-based media would have. You see that as mistaken?

Strate: We do get information revealed about politicians that we wouldn’t have known in the past. The revelation of that information could be seen as authentic, but if it relates to politicians’ personalities, then you lose a sense of what’s important. Ronald Reagan was seen as authentic because he was such an excellent TV performer. Donald Trump was seen as authentic because he said things people found to be outrageous. He was doing it on purpose to get attention. Anyone who really pays attention to democratic politics would want to look at the content as well as the style—politicians’ positions on issues, how they vote on legislation, how they govern as executives. Personality traits aren’t what citizens in a democracy do best to focus on.