There will be lots of photos from Sunday’s debate between the Democratic Party presidential candidates. I get a kick out of this one of Hilary and Bernie both letting it rip at the same time. We’ve posted regularly at this blog on how politics is a performance art–and how that can be a good thing for democratic politics. Of course, it also can be a bad thing, but this year it’s no secret that the demagoguery is all on the other side of the street.
So there are at least two reasons to like this photo: because it provides a comic reminder that political performances can be simply amusing rather than hideous examples of bad speech, and because it suggests that oratorical demonstrativeness really may add something to democratic deliberation.
To accept either argument, you have to grant me one thing: that these are two policy wonks who already have demonstrated exactly how debaters should speak: by answering most of the questions directly, demonstrating broad and deep knowledge of governance, addressing important problems and real needs facing the electorate, building coalitions while answering, and doing all this articulately, with concision, wit, and moments of eloquence. None of this denies that they also have dodged questions, answered with obvious strategic intention, and been adept at spin and spin control. But if you know anything about how reasonable speech is supposed to work, whether on in a meeting or a public forum, they you can’t do much better than go to school on these two.
Which is why it’s a hoot that they also look like a comedy team on Saturday Night Live. “Come on people–I WANT YOU TO CARE, DAMN IT!” And “Wheee! Look at me! Aren’t we having fun?” Completely different and completely the same; opposites and complements; raging seriousness and silly enjoyment side by side. Together they capture what is in fact a deep tension within our political culture: too much entertainment or too much principled rigidity can each be a bad thing. A well-functioning democracy needs some of each: at the least, it needs to appeal to ordinary people and get competing interests to work together, and in response to serious issues on behalf of our best values. And it needs political leaders who can do that, and audiences who can appreciate what is required.
Needless to say, there is some irony in the photo as well. Bernie Sanders is the one who is labeled an ideologue, while Hillary Clinton has a reputation for pandering. Surely there could be other photographs of them switching roles: something they should be able to do, frankly. And we can be confident that will, because of the emotional panache that is evident in this photo.
“Emoting” is a common answer in crossword puzzles. The clues include “orating,” “acting,” and variations thereof such as “making a speech.” That simple equation of public speaking and a theatrical performance actually captures an important truth. We need our leaders to emote on stage–sometimes to communicate what really matters, and sometimes simply to provide a good show. What they say and everything else matters, too, but let’s take a moment to see what is there to be seen. One public art has captured another.
Democracy needs them both: both seriousness and humor, and both photojournalism and oratory.
And who knows? Maybe even both Hilary and Bernie.
Photograph by Randall Hill/Reuters.