Those of you new to the Stage may be unaware of this author’s deep seated sense of enmity towards parliamentary institutions. While I find them in most respects intolerable, there is one aspect found in most parliamentary democracies that I have always wished to be included in America’s presidential system: question time.
Thus I found tonight’s Q&A session in Baltimore to be a wonderful surprise. I am often quick to condemn American political discourse as a sequence of tantrums designed to fit within the bounds of a two year old’s attention span. The mix of vitriol, self righteous posturing, and split-second punditry that permeates our political discourse reflects the irresponsibility of the American elite and the trivialization of the American people. As such, I can find little but sorow in most mass gatherings of journalists and statesmen.
This event was different. Indeed, I report with happiness that it was nothing like most politically themed media extravaganzas.
To my complete surprise, the words of the President and the Representatives were both civil and intelligent. Furthermore, their discussion cannot be easily parsed into ten second sound bites. The punditry will find a way to do so, I am sure, but in the mean time it is incredibly heartening to hear rational discourse on matters of state.
Despite the success of the session (or perhaps because of it), I worry that the President’s oratorical skill will dissuade the GOP from hosting such a televised event again. This move would be incredibly shortsighted on their part. On the long term, the Union is well served by providing estranged minorities with a venue for constructive criticism. More Q&A sessions also have the potential to increase public interest in national discourse as a whole; as a contest between partisans it will likely gather media attention in a way past attempts at civic engagement cannot.
This is not to say that all the benefits of an American question time are to be found in the Union’s long-term institutional health. For the Republicans there are political gains to be had in the here and now. As Zenpundit notes, functions like these take the President out of his “rarefied bubble” and expose him to ideas not common currency in the White House. More importantly for a GOP constantly marginalized by the media, question sessions allows Republican statesmen a rare chance to send an unadulterated message straight to the American people. Taking a lesson from the British model, question sessions also could serve as a sieve by which to separate the wheat from the chaff amongst the ranks of the GOP; those who can go tooth and claw against Mr. Obama and emerge unscathed will have proven their capacity as able statesmen to both their party and their people.
Perhaps my view of this session is overly romantic. Yet in the dark pit of America’s unaccountable public servants and “gotcha!” style politics, this session may be the first step towards redemption. If the citizenry allows it to fade away, I doubt America will be offered many more chances for revival.
My power as a citizen is limited. I shall write a letter of gratitude to each of the Representatives who participated in tonight’s session. Included will be an admonition to make these exchanges a permanent part of American politics. Lest they wish Tacitus’ lamentations to describe our Republic, my readers would be wise to do the same.