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Against Slobs
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Against Slobs

Craving decorum in an unserious age.

Sen. John Fetterman walks through Capitol on Wednesday, September 6, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

It bothers me that it bothers me that the Senate has relaxed its dress code.

On Sunday, Axios reported that Chuck Schumer had exercised his prerogative as majority leader and ordered that the chamber’s rules for attire on the floor no longer be enforced. The “rules” aren’t literal rules, it’s worth noting: Coat-and-tie for men is a Senate custom, not a formal policy. It isn’t written down anywhere.

But proper dress for weddings and funerals isn’t always specified in invitations either, yet no one takes that as license to show up in sweatpants. Respect for an institution makes respectable attire intuitive. And because it’s intuitive, custom rather than formal rules usually suffices to enforce the norm.

Disowning its own custom about respectable dress accordingly feels as if the Senate is disowning the belief that Congress as an institution deserves the same respect it’s traditionally enjoyed. And fair enough! But … not a great sign for American government.

Schumer’s decision was aimed at making life easier for one of the freshmen in his caucus, John Fetterman. Fetterman wears his populism on his sleeve, literally. His standard uniform as a candidate was a hoodie and shorts, and he’s continued to dress that way around the Capitol in Washington. He seems to prefer it earnestly to a suit and tie (and, again, fair enough!), not merely as an affectation designed to make blue-collar voters identify with him.

He’s also had a very hard year, you may have heard.

The new policy seems to be Schumer’s way of helping Fetterman get more comfortable in his job as he copes with the usual professional stressors plus some unusual personal ones. And in fairness to the hulking progressive from Pennsylvania, he’s not the only Democratic-aligned senator to have made a shambles of Senate dress etiquette recently.

It shouldn’t bother me, then, that the “rules” have changed for him. But it does.

And that bothers me almost as much.

There’s no way to avoid sounding priggish—and, frankly, old—when grousing about senators refusing to wear ties. 

They could already cast votes while in their gym clothes as long as they stood in the doorway to the Senate chamber instead of entering. All the new rules do is allow them to cross the threshold to do so. So who cares, really?

How many inane “things were better in my day” lectures must we endure from you, Grandpa?

American culture moved away from formal dress ages ago. “Business casual” has been a thing in corporate offices since before I joined the labor force. Men hardly ever wear coats and ties anymore unless they have a compelling reason to do so. If The People have embraced casual attire, it was inevitable that The People’s representatives would embrace it too.

Besides, we all perform better when we’re comfortable. If you weren’t thrilled with the Senate’s legislative output when senators were impeccably dressed, consider the possibility that shorts and hoodies might launch us into a new golden age of policy innovation.

Criticizing Fetterman can also feel hypocritical if, like me, you seldom dress to impress. I’ve been doing my job in the equivalent of pajamas for the better part of 20 years. Granted, I’m not a U.S. senator (yet), but throwing stones at someone else’s fashion choices from the porch of my glass house makes me feel uneasy and self-conscious. Perhaps I, a fellow fashion sinner, can muster a little sartorial grace for a guy who’s recovering from a major stroke and a bout of depression so terrible that he had to be hospitalized for it.

Those who are qualified to throw stones might also remind us that following the Senate dress code is no guarantee of “dressing well.” Matt Gaetz always wears a coat and tie around the Capitol yet often looks like a used-car salesman who overslept and threw something on while racing out the door. Bad, ill-fitting suits are arguably more dignified than shorts and hoodies, I’ll concede, but that’s a matter of barely clearing a low bar.

There’s also the small matter of having one’s political priorities in proper order. Spending mental energy on feeling aggrieved about the Senate’s dress code means not spending that energy on things one really should feel aggrieved about.

For instance, Kevin McCarthy’s House conference is currently so paralyzed by MAGA types bent on forcing a shutdown that it can’t pass a resolution to fund the government temporarily while it works on a longer-term deal. Conservatives who are willing to compromise are nonetheless warning Ukraine supporters not to expect money for the war effort in the next appropriations bill. And here I and many other conservatives are, prattling on about a dress code.

The more unsolvable America’s actual problems seem, the more enticing trivial problems become as subjects of debate.

Fetterman’s colleagues have noticed the right-wing commentariat’s strange priorities. So did Fetterman:

Even within the parameters of relatively trivial problems like the decorum of public figures, he’s hardly Congress’ worst offender lately. Fetterman might look like a slob wearing a hoodie on the Senate floor, but at least he didn’t get caught rounding second base and headed for third with a date in full view of children in a crowded public theater. The fact that Fox News and other right-wing influencers seem more offended by his attire than by the spectacle that Lauren Boebert made of herself has also caught the senator’s attention: “I figure if I take up vaping and grabbing the hog during a live musical, they’ll make me a folk hero,” Fetterman tweeted.

It bothers me to feel bothered by the change in the dress code because it leaves me in a place I don’t like to be, aligned with disingenuous right-wing populists forever sobbing that American culture is in decline while scrupulously ignoring the ways they’ve contributed to it. The most powerful demagogue in the United States, an utterly malign influence who’s less than three years removed from a coup attempt, is almost never seen wearing anything other than a suit except on the golf course. If you don’t perceive any lack of decorum—among other things—in nominating him for president again despite his respect for traditional fashion norms, spare me your hand-wringing about John Fetterman wearing shorts. 

But if you do perceive a lack of decorum in nominating Trump and you’re annoyed anyway by the new Senate dress code, well, that makes two of us.

How else but annoyed could a devout anti-populist like me feel about a new congressional norm that’s clearly designed to pander to populists?

I accept that John Fetterman sincerely prefers wearing shorts and a hoodie to wearing a suit and tie. But so what? So do many millions of Americans whose jobs require them to dress for work more formally than they do during their leisure time.

You, the reader, might be reading this at work right now. Even if there’s no official dress code at your place of business, chances are you’re wearing something that you wouldn’t wear to the gym. Like any grown adult, when you’re on the clock and around colleagues, you prioritize looking professional over maximum comfort. It’s a way of showing respect to your institution, your employer, and your clients and of earning their respect in return.

As much as one sympathizes with John Fetterman’s health struggles, expecting him to make the small sacrifice of dressing professionally during the fraction of the calendar year that the Senate is in session isn’t asking much. It’s the same expectation made of any American worker. He may dress like a populist, but his desire to be exempt from a longstanding norm that applies to the hoi polloi is emphatically not.

Hidden in the fine print of Schumer’s new policy, in fact, is the detail that the old dress code remains in effect for Senate staff. Only senators themselves have been liberated from it. The people who draft the bills, write the briefing memos, make the necessary phone calls, and do all manner of other grunt work that keeps Congress running are still required to dress professionally rather than for comfort. Their job is deadly serious, and so their attire must communicate that seriousness. But their bosses, the people who cast the actual votes? They’re exempt.

It’s strange that John Fetterman, man of the people, is content with that double standard.

The new policy is bothersome for reasons more meaningful than that it’s unfair to the help, though. In its own trivial way, it’s a step toward further normalizing the narcissism and unseriousness of modern American politics, “another signpost along a journey taken through our rapidly vulgarizing age,” as National Review’s Jeff Blehar puts it.

On Wednesday Jim Geraghty reviewed some of Fetterman’s comments about serving in the Senate and concluded that he’s not thrilled with his job. Maybe his health problems soured him on the experience or maybe being publicly disgusted with Washington is a mandatory facet of his populist shtick. Or maybe, Geraghty reasoned, dressing like a blue-collar slob is Fetterman’s job. It’s the thing he’s best known for, after all.

Fetterman got elected based on “vibes,” pairing a progressive agenda driven by left-wing populism with a physically intimidating working-class-white-guy persona that seemed more redolent of right-wing populism. Whether it was the left- or right-wing sides of his image that appealed to you, if you voted for him you almost certainly did so because you wanted someone starkly “different” in Congress, more down to earth than the usual political stiffs.

The new Senate dress code is Fetterman delivering on that promise. It doesn’t get much more down-to-earth than wearing shorts during a debate on life-and-death legislation. Given that freshmen senators never do much legislating, earning official permission to wear a hoodie on the Senate floor may end up being the biggest political accomplishment of his term.

One wonders how much the shorts-and-hoodie get-up might be a sort of costume, in fact, something Fetterman believes he needs to be seen in as often as possible to affirm his blue-collar identity. He is dressing professionally, we might say, just as his staffers are. It’s just that pandering to voters is a different profession than working in a Senate office is.

In a populist age, looking like a slob has its benefits.

Fetterman’s case is an innocuous example of a member of Congress delivering unserious populist nonsense to his constituents this week, but there are less innocuous ones. Consider Matt Gaetz’s far more consequential escapades in thwarting funding for the government. You don’t vote for Gaetz for Congress because you’re keen to solve America’s problems; you vote for him because he’s a talented troll who’s eager to light firecrackers in the nostrils of sleeping Republican establishmentarians like Kevin McCarthy. (Unless, I guess, you think lighting firecrackers in McCarthy’s nostrils is how America’s problems get solved.) That’s what he was sent to Congress to do, so that’s what he’s doing.

He may end up as governor of Florida because of it.

The unseriousness of the left extends to matters more sinister than kerfuffles over dress codes, needless to say. But the unseriousness of the right, its willingness to reward narcissists lavishly for their personality defects, is more pronounced and more dangerous. At least at this moment in American history.

We’ve had more than enough from both, a sentiment which I suspect is felt universally. So when Chuck Schumer gives his blessing to a change that will encourage further displays of unseriousness and narcissism on the Senate floor, it makes me wince despite the fact that it’s objectively a minor thing. Especially since you and I both know how trends work in politics: Once Fetterman starts getting praise from voters for delivering floor speeches in a hoodie, it won’t be long before Ted Cruz starts attending hearings in shorts, high-tops, and a backwards baseball cap.

The grubbier this political era gets, the more it fetishizes insincere grifting populist “authenticity,” the more I find myself craving even small victories for decorum. Even in an institution as indecorous as Congress.

Incentivize respectability in all things, great and small. That starts with voting out performance artists like Gaetz, who has a lucrative career in conservative infotainment ahead of him, but I’d extend the principle all the way to ceremonial matters like how senators dress when conducting the people’s business. John Fetterman wearing a tie isn’t going to make Congress great again, but it will make it a tiny bit more dignified. And we can use all the dignity we can get.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.