C-SPAN Is the Last Place on Earth to Watch Reality

News articles about government only tell parents so much. Watching the real thing matters.


In the ’80s and ’90s, I used to hate it when I walked out to the living room to see my dad drinking a cup of early-morning coffee and watching C-SPAN. It was the most boring thing you could possibly imagine as a child, a fact which is probably still true for kids who aren’t yet in school. These days, I wouldn’t subject my toddler to C-SPAN, but when she’s in grade school, middle school, or high school I might. Decades after mocking my dad’s C-SPAN watching habits, I finally get it. Watching the ways in which the government actually muddles through the process of governing is actually pretty damn compelling. And unlike reading curated news articles on my phone, C-SPAN just shows you what democracy actually looks like. There’s no spin. For the most part, there’s no commentary. It’s just like a low-budget nature documentary about people doing their jobs. Sometimes badly. Sometimes frustratingly. But it’s real.

Following the horrifying riots in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, watching the actual counting of the electoral college votes on C-SPAN was bizarrely comforting. Everywhere you look, parents, educators, news pundits, and President-elect Joe Biden, have correctly pointed out how horrifying it is that a sitting President basically incited a riot. But, if you watched the live-feed of Congress debating and counting the votes last night, you might have learned something else. All of this really sucks. It’s horrible. It’s terrifying. And yet, here were of these people are, actually doing their jobs. There’s comfort in these procedures. There’s comfort in these rules. When I was in high school, I had to buy a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, so I could participate in student congress and at various speech and debate tournaments. I’m not going to say that I loved learning this stuff, but sitting and watching C-SPAN last night made me thankful that I had.

I was also thankful to my father, a man who mostly voted Republican, but occasionally voted for Democrats when he felt like it was the right thing to do. Personally, as a parent and thinking person, I can’t imagine voting Republican in the 21st Century, but I also get that there are generational divides between myself and the politics of my late-father. The larger point is, in his most honest moments, before the huge dominance of talk radio, and various right-wing spin-doctors, my dad thought it was important to actually listen to everything people were saying in Congress, in the context of those people actually doing government work.

Watching Lindsey Graham unequivocally state that Biden will be the next President was bizarrely soothing. I disagree with Mr. Graham’s politics, and his rejection of Trump-ism is more than a little bit late. But, because I watched his speech in real-time and in its totality, I felt more connected to the democratic process than I had in a long time. I also suddenly felt more connected to my late father, with whom I rarely agreed on politics once I was old enough to vote. Seeing the process unfold in the most boring, and straight-forward way possible reminded me that as a parent, I value different things than what I valued before I was a parent.

The slowness of procedures in Congress was similar to the feeling of having a drink of water after you’ve been hung-over for several days in a row. Unlike my parents’ generation, information and outcomes are on much shorter timelines now. This opinion piece will be live on the internet within the same couple of hours of me having written it. But, in the C-SPAN world, things take time. Information is not condensed. Speeches are long. In a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control, that one, the very specific constant is something to be thankful for. The work of democracy moves forward at the pace of a dad sipping his early morning coffee.