Rethinking America, Richter Scale

The United States’ Self-Defeating Gotcha Culture

Congressional hearings on healthcare.gov: show-trials and perils for democracy.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) reprimanding someone during a Committee hearing in 2007.

Takeaways


  • There was a time when the United States set the standards for transparency and disclosure globally. No longer.
  • The gotcha culture ends up hollowing out the US's erstwhile strong suit, its pragmatism.
  • Like Stalinist show-trials, Congress cycles through a litany of accusations, reprimands and crass overstatements.
  • Celebrating divisiveness and the gotcha spirit may have its charms, but next to no positive returns.
  • Congress may dish it out to Administration officials, but the latter may not "dish back."
  • The advised stance in front of the Congress: feign to be prepared for decapitation and you will be spared.
  • Almost any public debate in the US is characterized by extreme, adversarial behavior. Solutions are not sought.

There was a time when the United States set the standards for transparency and disclosure globally. No longer.

What prevails instead is the celebration of a gotcha culture that ends up hollowing out the U.S.’s erstwhile strong suit, its pragmatism.

Case in point: the troubles in late 2013 related to the rollout of the healthcare.gov portal. Yes, it is more than a snafu. And yes, it’s quite scandalous.

But with just about everybody in the United States fully aware of the problem, what then is the point of dragging every conceivable administration official from one Congressional hearing to the next – only to be presented, almost without exception, with the same litany of questions?

The motto of all members of Congress seems to be: When all possible questions have already been asked, all that remains is for everybody else to ask them again – and in every conceivable committee.

Like Stalinist era show-trials

And so, day after day, an avalanche of hearings unfolds. Like Stalinist era show-trials, they go through the same obvious litany of accusations, reprimands, crass overstatements and demands of contrition.

But what’s the point of it all? It’s not to fix things and optimize processes, as pragmatic minded people would and should do. No, it’s about acting collectively as the high priests of the blame game.

And yet, despite all the presumed political payoffs, that blame game actually yields next to no real political advantages, given the extreme short-term orientation of the American electorate.

Sure, one’s supporter base may be rallied and excited, for a while. But even that is more a flash in the pan. In the broader process, the biggest effect is that something else (and much more valuable and precious) gets further torn to pieces – any sense of the American nation as a collective enterprise.

Dishing out as a sport

Celebrating divisiveness and the gotcha spirit may have its charms, but next to no positive returns.

Superficially viewed, adversarial and contentious hearings make American democracy seem more vigorous. That could be a good thing, if the intentions underlying the hearings exercise weren’t so phony.

In that context, consider the matter of Congressional decorum, even deference. Amazingly for a country that has always held itself out as a beacon of democracy and straight talk, this leads to some real perversions, especially in the relationship between Congress and the Administration.

Under those rules of engagement, it is fair for Congress to dish it out to Administration officials, but the latter may not “dish back.”

Feigning contrition

They essentially have to take on the appearance of contrite children appearing before their very patrician, if not authoritarian parents.

The generally advised stance in front of the Congress, playing the role of the ultimate sovereign, the people, is this: Put your head on the chopping block and feign to be prepared for decapitation. Go through all the motions of contrition and you will be spared.

That procedure is not only one-sided, but also leads to a theater of the absurd – all the more so as (far too) many members of Congress are lawyers by training. Whether they ever worked as a public prosecutor or not, they surely enjoy the opportunity to play that role now.

To enhance the spectacle, there is the rule that basically every member of the respective committee must be heard.

That not only turns those hearings into endless procedures, but also gives each member of Congress the opportunity to create the televised illusion before the home audience in their electoral district that they individually led the charge against whatever mishap in Washington.

Jockeying for the best one-liner or revelation comes natural to politicians who are always in a desperate race for publicity – the real coinage in which they are compensated.

But it leads to important questions about the present and future of American democracy. The problem lies not just with Congressional hearings.

Commonality as collateral damage

Almost any public debate in the United States is characterized by extreme, adversarial behavior. People first and foremost seek to blame the other side, rather than seek any middle ground or realistic solutions.

In a nation that mostly talks at each other, rather than with each other, important ingredients of democracy – perhaps the most vital ones – are getting lost.

None matters more than the art of compromise, which in a mature democracy is the only quality that really matters to voters.

Conducting politics as a mere talk shop or sounding off exercise, as is now so prevalent throughout the United States, is only bound to make Americans more apolitical and less community and common cause minded than they already are.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on November 11, 2013 and was updated by the author on June 19, 2014.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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