Cohen and growing partisanship

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This past Wednesday, Michael Cohen, personal lawyer to President Trump, gave his testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. In his testimony, Cohen called Trump a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat.” According to Vice, Cohen implicated Trump in 11 different felonies “from potential involvement in a grand Russia conspiracy to pilfering money from his own charitable foundation.”

This was a very polarizing event. Vocal Democrats have been pushing for impeachment since the first inklings of collusion surfaced, and this testimony seems to validate those claims. On the other hand, Republicans continue to rally behind the president, attacking Cohen’s character and motivations. This environment put a bright spotlight on the members of the committee. Their questions and actions would be watched and recorded by their constituents, and a wrong step could spell disaster for the next election cycle, where rising Democratic support threatens to dislodge even the safest Republican seats.

I don’t want to write about the controversial testimony of Mr. Cohen. Instead, I want to focus on the actions of the members of the committee, specifically the form and content of their questions.

Committee members are like anyone else in a democratic political office: the most important thing to them is getting reelected. For this reason, high profile committee meetings are a way for politicians in the House to make a name for themselves and connect to their constituents. They need to present themselves as relatable in order to show that they are representing their voter base. Because of this, the questions they ask are based on politics, constructed to benefit the image of the official instead of advancing the goal of the committee. This is even more pronounced in polarized, high-profile committee meetings. In this environment, freshman Democratic House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — commonly referred to as AOC — defies the norm.

Republicans play a similar game every time in these House committees. They try to appeal to three different images: strength, relatability, and morality. First, to show strength, they will get red-faced and angry. Raising their voice, bullying, and suppressing arguments are what winners do, so they do it too. In this hearing, many Republicans said to Cohen, “it's my [question] time, not yours!” silencing him and continuing their questions. Second, Republicans try to be relatable and understandable by speaking in metaphors. In a famous hearing, one Republican evoked the image of a bull stuck in a house to explain the debt problem. Third, they show their morality and piousness by referring to their time in the army, the police force, or as a minister. These narratives are not at all related to the committee hearing at hand or the current problems facing the nation. Instead, they are constructed to present a caricature that appeals to their voter base.

Democrats are very similar; the major difference is that their voter base is oppositely polarized. First, they still want to appear as strong, but they present it as staying calm and aloof. Democrats who yell and get red-faced are seen as weaker than those who maintain a quiet, authoritative presence. Second, they still want to be relatable, but they accomplish this by bringing up understandable issues and rhetoric that appear in liberal media. This is because the Democratic voter base is informed by this media. Democrats tend to quote journalism, while Republicans like to bring up new issues that they can “own” and put their name on. Third, they act as though they are moral, just like Republicans do. All this is further evidence for the theater that lawmakers engage in. Especially in the House, where elections happen more often, it is especially important that committee members make a big name for themselves.

In all this, AOC defies the norms. In her short five-minute question time with Cohen, AOC implicated Trump in tax fraud, linked crimes to Trump associates, and brought forth a scheme to basically steal public funds. She still did many of the same things as her Democratic colleagues, but she toned it down considerably. The only time she pandered to her voters was in a short exchange where she referred to a Trump golf course, “near [her] home borough of the Bronx,” which she drives past “every day” creating the image of her connectedness to the community. Other than this, she conducted what has been referred to as a “surgical strike” of questions. She knew what information she wanted to get and how to get it, and she didn’t waste time with decorum and image manufacturing. This is the strength of the new-wave Democrats: they create an appealing image by doing what needs to be done and making the government seem efficient and effective. Instead of having to spend their time pandering and puffing up their feathers, new young Democrats can create change, and get reelected because that's what the new voters like.