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The Senate: Where Standards Go to Die
The change to the Senate dress code is a sign of the times.
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Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has relaxed the upper house’s long-standing, if unwritten, dress code requiring senators to wear business attire. Henceforth, he said in a statement, “senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor.”
He didn’t give a reason. He didn’t need to. Everyone knows the changes were made primarily at the behest of Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman, who insists on wearing baggy shorts, sweatshirts, and shirts while conducting official business in the chambers. The dress code for all has been changed to accommodate the
needs desire of one member of the ruling caucus. Nothing says respectability like basic standards being jettisoned for the lowest common denominator.
Call me crazy, but perhaps being a U.S. senator isn’t the job for someone who can’t stand wearing a suit. Fetterman was obviously aware that senators wear suits up on Capitol Hill, particularly when they’re on the floor of the chamber. In fact, back in October 2022, when a Pittsburgh radio-show host asked Fetterman, “Will you wear your hoodie on the Senate floor?” the candidate responded, “I’m going to only wear what you’re supposed to wear and whatever dress code.” And he did just that, routinely wearing a suit after his term began in January, which imposed little hardship on him. But well before even hitting a year in office, he changed his tune. In a July interview with the New York Times, Fetterman told the paper, “It was a eureka moment when I figured out I don’t have to be in a suit to stand at the threshold of the Senate chamber, going ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ and it was amazing. I’ve been able to reduce my suit time by about 75 percent.”
Naturally, because Fetterman is part of Team Blue, the usual propaganda organs of the Democratic Party — that is, the entire mainstream media — have come out in defense of the move.
“Republicans Are Losing Their Mind Over the Senate’s New Dress Code,” reads a headline from the New Republic. Rolling Stone says “tight-laced Republicans” are having a “meltdown” because lawmakers like Fetterman are now allowed to “embrace their affinity for casual clothes without violating protocol” and “prioritize comfort over costume.” New York Magazine avers that “The Senate is a grotesque institution. Who cares how it dresses?” The Guardian has enlisted a handful of “menswear experts” to argue that more politicians should dress like Fetterman. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes spent half his show mocking the “Republican Freak Out Over Senate Dress Code.”
Fetterman, who presided in the Senate while wearing shorts and a Carhartt shirt Wednesday morning, called criticism of the new dress code “mystifying.” “If those jagoffs in the House stop trying to shut our government down, and fully support Ukraine,” he said, “then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor next week.”
No doubt it must be almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint to see an institution like the U.S. Senate throw 234 years of historical precedent out the window to accommodate your lack of sartorial eloquence. And look, I get it: I, too, love wearing shorts and a sweatshirt as much as I hate wearing a suit. But there’s such a thing as standards. They matter. At West Point we had a saying: “The man who treats the minimum standard as his maximum effort, is not a man we want beside us in a firefight.” Well, the man for whom slothful comfort matters more than respecting one of America’s most important institutions is not a man you want as a leader. You want someone who sets an example that others should aspire to.
Chuck Schumer knows that his decision to “relax” the dress code means standards are being compromised. It’s telling that the relaxation of the code applies only to senators, not their pages, staffers, or to visitors,1 and that Schumer himself felt the need to stipulate in his announcement that he would continue to wear a suit. Clearly he’s concerned about maintaining some semblance of standards. But rather obnoxiously (and hypocritically), Democrats have decided that the privilege of sporting leisurely garb during a working day on the taxpayer’s dime will be exclusive to those of senatorial rank, while lesser mortals are required to don the ironic new badge of servility within Shumer’s chambers—business attire.
Sure, the way Fetterman dresses has no bearing on whether or not he’s a good senator.2 But it speaks to how he regards his position. When you ask for a major position of civic trust, it’s incumbent upon you to pay heed to the traditions and formal rules of the institution of government you are entering, if only out of respect for your constituents, whom you have the honor of representing. You owe it to them to show up looking and behaving professionally.
If the Capitol is considered the heart of the world’s oldest continuous democracy, then the Senate floor is among its most storied and sacred spaces. It’s where many of our nation’s most consequential debates on everything from war to slavery have taken place. Dressing appropriately conveys respect for the sanctity of the institution, which is invested with considerable power; for the real-world impact of the policies it advances; and for the deliberative process that at least aspires to solemnity. Judges can wear whatever they want on the bench, but the seriousness of their duties necessitates that they wear the traditional black robes. And while a Senate session isn’t as fraught as a court session, it should still be treated as a matter of some consequence worthy of proper attire.
One would think that, with public trust in the federal government continuing to plummet,3 the Senate might want to avoid looking like they just don’t give a damn anymore. Moreover, given the fact that Fetterman’s health problems have raised questions about his competency for the job, one would think that he’d want to dress as professionally as possible.
There are deeper forces at play, however. A minor event in its own right, the dress code change perhaps seems trivial compared to other political issues. But the Senate embracing an ethos of casual indifference after a couple of centuries of a higher standard is a sign of the times and emblematic of a far greater problem spreading through society. When rules and standards cease to matter, the line delineating civilized from uncivilized becomes blurred, and human progress and improvement come to a standstill. Tell people that rules and standards don’t matter and they’ll stop trying because their efforts no longer make a difference. People who don’t expect others to give their best effort lose the inclination to give their own. Hyperbolic thought it might sound, if everyone stops trying and caring, then civilization becomes uncivilized.
It’s no coincidence that such rule changes are even possible in 2023, because of the shifting cultural mores on the Left, whose reprobates and malcontents are ushering in societal rot and the nation’s decline under the guise of leading us to a more “equitable utopia” free of the West’s “oppressive heritage.” The broader public is being disciplined and conditioned to accept a new range of politically acceptable norms and behavior.
This gets at something Heather Mac Donald, author of When Race Trumps Merit, pointed out: the Left’s most important power, in control as they are of our key institutions, is the ability to set the default. Disruption after disruption to longstanding social practices is engineered, each more sweeping than the last. As soon as those changes are in place, they become the norm, treated as having existed forever. Those who question the new default are painted as churlish and old-fashioned. No burden of proof must be met to implement the Left’s changes; instead, the burden falls exclusively on conservatives seeking to restore a once-uncontroversial tradition. And it is conservatives who are always portrayed as the aggressors despite always being on the defensive, fighting a rearguard action.
For all their talk of Progress™, it is deeply ironic that everything the Left does is regressive, moving the country back in achievement and quality, lowering standards or erasing them outright, and decimating the integrity and honor of everything they touch. From eliminating grades and academic standards, to watering down criminal sentences and abolishing dress codes, their answer to everything is general derogation. Nothing improves under their tutelage, though many people are often led to believe otherwise thanks to the expansive public relations campaigns the country is subjected to with the help of a complicit media.
It really should come as no surprise that, brimming as they are with fanatical self-regard, Democratic leaders apparently no longer find it necessary to conform themselves to the norms and expectations of our institutions, and lack the courage to insist on rules that may no longer be fashionable, even if they still serve an important function. Fetterman and Schumer are but a microcosm of the scourge that is Left modernism in the United States, which is systematically dismantling the country with politics and programs that undermine our longstanding foundational values. The change to the Senate’s dress code is just another reminder of the general direction our culture is heading under the banner of Progress™, another signpost along a journey taken through “our rapidly vulgarizing age,” toward both greater informality and greater unseriousness about the work of government, and what’s likely to be the permanent lowering of standards.
The website for the U.S. Capitol visitor center still states, “The Capitol is a working office building. Please dress appropriately and behave in a respectful manner.”