February 22, 2018


The CNN town hall on gun control was a failure. And that's good for our democracy. (Lili Loofbourow, February 22, 2018, The Week)

There's perhaps no better illustration of the staged political theater we've grown accustomed to than the "listening session" the president held with educators and students compared to the town hall later that same day. The former was a pathetically sanitized affair. [...]

The 2.5-hour town hall, mediated by CNN's Jake Tapper, was a stunning contrast. For one thing, it gave grieving students, parents, and teachers in Florida a forum to confront lawmakers and corporate interests as equals. The result was electrifying and substantive: Murdered teen Jaime Guttenberg's father asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to admit that guns were a problem. Ashley Kurth, a culinary arts teacher at Stoneman Douglas who sheltered 65 students during the shooting and identified herself as a Trump voter, asked whether the president's suggestion that teachers be armed meant she now had to train and wear a Kevlar vest in addition to educating her students. (Rubio said he did not support the proposal.)

Perhaps the most dramatic moment came when high schooler Cameron Kasky asked Rubio whether he would, in future, reject donations from the National Rifle Association. "That's the wrong way to look at it," Rubio hedged, "people buy into my agenda." In the ensuing exchange, Kasky persisted: "In the name of 17 people, you cannot ask the NRA to keep their money out of your campaign?" Rubio, who said he supported raising the age at which you can buy a gun from 18 to 21, refused to reject NRA funds: "I will always accept the help of anyone who agrees with my agenda," he concluded, lamely. The teen drove the ugly contradiction at the heart of Rubio's answer home: "Your agenda is protecting us, right?" he said.

Judging by reactions online, viewers were stunned by this exchange. People were certainly impressed by Kasky's poise and persistence (especially given his youth). But we're also just totally unused to platforms where follow-up questions like these are asked, let alone answered. It felt, in a very small way, revolutionary. That's partly due to the kids' lack of deference. It is genuinely unusual to see citizens treat their public servants as public servants, but Kasky and the other students behaved as though the idea of public service was more than a polite fiction.

The format even seemed to give the politicians a way to talk to each other. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Rubio appeared to have a genuine (if heated) exchange of ideas over how to move forward with shared legislation. It may have been theater, but it felt like we were witnessing a conversation between them that they would not otherwise have had.

That doesn't mean anything was solved. There are hard limits to what this kind of spectacle can do. Any hope of converting Rubio (or NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, who sternly condescended to the bereaved crowd in a tornado of deflection) was slim. Within a couple of hours of that town hall, Rubio was already walking back any hope of progress.

But spectacles like these aren't actually about producing his moment of conversion. They're about producing ours.

Posted by at February 22, 2018 8:06 AM