The Roman statesman Cicero once skewered his city’s senators by saying they acted as if they were in Plato’s republic when they were actually in Romulus’s cesspool. Those lawmakers would look like wise leaders in comparison to ours, if the recently completed hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett are any measure.

Senator after senator showed they were incapable of taking the moment seriously and acting like, well, senators. The confirmation of someone to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court should be one of the most important decisions a senator makes. That demands a level of seriousness and attention to the issues at stake that are commensurate with the weight of the moment. Alas, that was not what was on display this week.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was one of the most conspicuously vacuous. Instead of using his time to question Barrett on her jurisprudence, Whitehouse used his initial time to allege a conservative conspiracy to control the courts using “dark money.” His low-rent PowerPoint presentation, using printed cards rather than digital slides to make his points, reeked of preening for the cameras. His “questioning” did not even pose a real question: Barrett did not say a single word during his entire 30-minute presentation.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) went beyond the absurd and into the macabre. She asked a devout Catholic mother of seven if she had ever sexually assaulted someone. Barrett calmly replied in the negative, surely suppressing the feeling of anger most normal people would feel at such a baseless and scurrilous implication. It’s doubtful she would react so calmly if someone followed up with a litany of other questions such as, “Have you ever killed someone?” and, “Have you ever robbed a bank?” and so forth.

Republicans were not immune to such low levels of sophistication. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) asked Barrett, “Who does the laundry in your house?” He clearly was trying to inject some humor into the proceeding, but the question was still highly inappropriate. Would a senator debating whether to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor have thought it appropriate to lighten the mood with an ethnic joke? There’s a time and a place for levity, but serious debates on the future of the country aren’t one of them.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) was one of the few senators who rose to the moment. That’s not surprising, as the legislator has frequently decried the lack of seriousness that prevails in today’s Congress. His thoughtful line of questioning was geared toward establishing what Barrett’s jurisprudence meant and how it was crucial to the proper role of the judiciary in a democratic system of government. Anyone who listened to their exchange would have learned something about the nominee’s beliefs and her fitness to serve on the court. That’s exactly what these hearings were supposed to accomplish.

The Senate likes to call itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” That honor was once deserved, as members from all backgrounds and political parties actively discussed issues seriously. Today’s senators, however, seem uninterested in doing that; instead, they use the body’s committee rooms or the Senate floor as a platform from which to read talking points prepared by their staff for regurgitation in friendly social media. That is the political equivalent of a sugar high, producing a short burst of recognition but damaging the institution’s ability to do what it is supposed to do: discuss and pass legislation that affects people’s lives. It’s no wonder that serious and ambitious women and men are increasingly attracted to the law or the bureaucracy, institutions where they can do actual work. The fact that such people wield their power behind closed doors and without public discussion or consent, though, simply shows how our democracy is slowly dying before our eyes.

Cicero’s senators were unable to save their Republic. Monarchy, first from Julius Caesar and then from his adopted son, Augustus, became the only way to establish some form of stable government for Rome and its empire. The more America’s senators resemble ancient Rome’s in their obtuse preening, the more we risk drifting into an autocracy of our own.

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