Last night, Warren, one of only 21 female senators (check), in the act of protesting the nomination of a famously racist (check) southern white man (check) by refusing to stop reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King (check), was silenced by a second jowly southern man (check) and a gaggle of her mostly-male peers (check) during Black History Month (check). Then, after her colleagues invoked rule XIX, which is Roman numeral for 19, which is the same number as the amendment that gave women the right to vote (I mean, check, I guess) in silencing her and removing her from the floor, multiple male Senators were allowed to read the very letter that got Warren booted (check). Bingo!
Political theatrics are usually about as graceful and nuanced as a game of chess played by middle managers in sumo costumes: inelegant at best, undignified at worst. But it’s still a game, and there are still winners and losers. If the object of the game is to see who can make the other side look as though they’re On The Wrong Side Of History and rile up their base, last night, Elizabeth Warren and the Senate Democrats beat Mitch McConnell and the Senate GOP handily.
But if what matters for a political ideology is actual results, the impact of Elizabeth Warren’s temporary banishment from the Senate floor and the very obvious push to propel that moment to virality is yet to be determined. Warren’s moment is being celebrated like it’s a victory. A meme-friendly moment of rebellion isn’t a victory if it’s just defeat plus feel-good artifice. If Tom Brady got pantsed right before the trophy ceremony, he still won the Super Bowl.
But everybody loves a good umbrage story. They’re easy to understand, easy to digest, sharable and snackable. You can’t turn on a cable news channel today without seeing Senator Warren’s face sandwiched between ads for colostomy bags and reverse mortgages. People with social media accounts and friends who suddenly care a lot more about politics than they did six months ago face a barrage of trending hashtags, of lofty comparisons between Warren and Coretta Scott King, between Warren and activists who fought the display of the Confederate flag, of Warren and insert-the-historically-significant-civil-rights-player-here. Isn’t it great that she took a stand? Isn’t it great that she suffered like our heroes? Isn’t it unsettling that liberals have very little to feel good about right now, and will have very little to feel good about for the foreseeable future, and that we’re not going to get any of what we wanted?
Warren’s last 24 hours create such a compelling narrative that the less inspiring details are being swept aside in a hungry left’s quest for inspiration, but that’s how the sausage is made. Warren injected her own disparaging words about Sessions that Senators say is the reason she was disciplined. She was warned before McConnell and company dropped the hammer on her (a detail that many have latched onto as yet another signifier of what the liberal blogs would brand Warren’s iconic badassery).
But McConnell wasn’t done after playing right into the Democrats’ hands. After Warren was barred, he allowed four of her male colleagues to read the same letter, a move that was easy for the left to paint as both racist and sexist.
Warren’s protest and dismissal, like most successful scoreboard marriage proposals and antics within range of a CSPAN camera, smacks of pre-planning. The Senate voted to stop her from talking at 9:10 pm, but an hour before, Senator Chuck Schumer’s press guy tweeted out a lovely pre-memed photo of Warren, clad in Hillary-on-November-9th-esque purple, emblazoned with the hashtag #LetLizSpeak. It was almost as if he anticipated that Warren might be barred from speaking, and that if that came to pass, the moment would go from medium viral to mega-viral. (The photo in the image, by the way, was of Warren on the House floor, not the Senate floor from which she was soon-to-be-banished.)
As could be expected, the Democratic Party has already attempted to #capitalize on it, according to this email Donna Brazile just sent me asking for some money. I’ll bet you a one-time donation of $5, $10, $25, or $100 that it won’t be the last Warren-themed appeal for cash people on the DNC’s mailing list receive.
Then there’s the pesky underlying truth, even in light of Warren’s display. A viral hashtag or hashtags can’t undo the democratic process that brought us here. Grandstanding, no matter how compelling, isn’t how things get done or undone. An army of thousands rallying to defend a city that has already fallen can’t turn back time and declare retroactive victory. A million people reading Coretta Scott King’s opinion on why Jeff Sessions would make a bad federal judge will not prevent him from becoming Attorney General. After all of this, Sessions likely has the votes to be confirmed, just as Betsy DeVos did after weeks of protest. It’s too late, baby.
Watching and writing about politics day in and day out over the course of several years can do a number on one’s ability to see the actions of any politician as anything but a cynical attempt to create a photo op that will create a fundraising email that will create a Moment in which constituents and their wallets can feel as though they are a part, while, in reality, nothing of substance is accomplished and everything stays the same forever. Elizabeth Warren’s antics today, and the inevitable waterfall of fundraising emails that will follow, are part of Washington’s plodding choreography. But they’re not entirely useless, as long as they’re viewed with a healthy amount of pragmatism.
While contrived and tiresome to people who have seen Hill theatrics a million times before, stunts like Warren’s will continue to serve an important purpose as the left nurses its wounds and regroups. People whose political awakening happened within the last year need inspiring lifelines to get them through muddy weeks of bad news. It’s rough out there. After eight years of zoning out under Obama, reentering reality as the opposition might be a shock to the system.
But those who are cheering Warren today would be well-served not to linger in this place of mental respite for too long, lest optimism turn into complacency. It’s been a long two and a half weeks. It’s going to be a long four years. Hold your applause for the final act.