Updated: Apr 18
From a Rhode Island lawmaker asking one of his out colleagues if she is a pedophile, to the cringe-inducing behavior of Congress’s TikTok hearing, we are in dire need of less embarrassing politicians.
On March 20, this writer’s phone and inbox quickly lit up with messages that Rep. Robert Quattrocchi had asked Rep. Rebecca Kislak, an out member of the LGBTQ community, “are you a pedophile?” This repugnant moment was overshadowed in the national media just three days later when the US Congress held a hearing about TikTok and why members think the app should be banned. They had the social media company’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, at the hearing and asked him a litany of bizarre questions from if the video streaming app accessed users' WiFi, to why would a sunglasses filter track user’s eye movements.
The hearing was filled with xenophobic comments and members continually mislabel Chew’s nationality. It was so bizarre that at one point, Congressman Bill Johnson pretended to understand binary code and claimed “TikTok’s source code is riddled with backdoors and CCP [Chinese Communist Party] censorship devices” and that “in a million lines of code the smallest shift from a zero to a one” was all it would take for TikTok to hand the Red Army your phone.
Quattrocchi’s behavior got him removed from the committee by openly Gay Speaker of the House, Joe Shekarchi. Quattrocchi’s actions were homophobic and transphobic, but he got off easy. Congress has had it worse after the bipartisan spectacle put on by the House Energy and Commerce Committee where members let us see just how little they understand modern technology.
Congress’s show was mocked online by outraged TikTok users and by media. This writer’s TikTok feed was filled with users angrily calling Congress out or mocking them as hopelessly unable to understand technology. A Rhode Island TikTok user told USA Today “it is painfully obvious that these people did not understand the questions that they were asking.” CNN ran a similar piece about TikTok users making fun of Congress. Even the TikTok video Options linked to for the clip of Congressman Richard Hudson asking about WiFi stated in the description: “This is so embarrassing. I swear to god we need to get competent and younger people in office.”
Congressman Dan Crenshaw's comments at the hearing to young people “who think we're just old and out of touch” were too usable for ridicule by TikTok users of all ages to resist. Users even used his words with stitches of Congress members of both parties stumbling through their statements. Other users looked up members of Congress’s stock portfolios and derided them for assailing TikTok while they owned shares in Facebook (the social media giant calls itself Meta in an attempt to distance itself from its main product).
The criticism coming from thousands of TikTok’s 150 million American users was kind compared to the criticism found in media. At The Week, a cartoon by John Deering stated “Congress finally has a better understanding of how TikTok works. Almost half of them now know it's not a breath mint.” The New Republic ran a piece titled “The Wildest Things Members of Congress Said During the TikTok Hearing.” When The Washington Post took to TikTok to report a recap of the hearing and after many members made certain assertions the company was spying for Chinese communists, the outlet decided to include a declaimer: “Lawmakers have offered no evidence of TikTok harming U.S. national security interests.”
Even when The New York Daily News wrote an editorial about the privacy issues posed by TikTok and other social media companies, they ran it with a headline that labeled Congress’s actions “hysterics.” While Alex Cranz at The Verge slammed Congress members’ bigotry for continually claiming TikTok's CEO was Chinese – Chew is Singaporean – and called it “a weird, brutal, xenophobic mess.”
There are important questions about users' social media data and abuses by these companies – both foreign and domestically owned. Yet, as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, a TikTok ban doesn’t address those issues at all. Many users have expressed concerns about their livelihoods if a ban were enacted since it is the main source of income for many of the app's influencers. It is also unclear how many jobs would be lost if the 5 million businesses using TikTok were barred from doing business on the app.
This lack of understanding of technology or the possible repercussions of Congress’s potential actions was painfully on display. While in Rhode Island, Quattrocchi’s statements too were bizarre and show no understanding of the subject discussed. These two events might seem separate, but these incidents – and too many others to mention – are more connected than one might think. It was embarrassing for us in the Ocean State to watch Quattrocchi. Congress’s recent actions embarrassed the nation.
It comes down to one question: Do our elected officials have a basic understanding of the world of today?
In July 2022, Billy Porter was on The View and discussed anti-drag legislation and was asked why are elected officials moving such antiquated legislation. Porter’s response sums it up best, “the reason the pushback that we're getting not only from Florida but all over the world, is because the change has already happened.”
Rhode Island has changed. The U.S. has changed. The change has already happened and too many of the people that represent us – in both parties – don’t even know it.
Be it homophobia, transphobia, anti-drag legislation, or technology, there is a disconnect between the lived experiences and values of everyday Americans and too many of the people who hold elected office.
The solution is simple but isn’t easy. We need more young people to run for office. This doesn’t mean older people shouldn’t run, it is just this writer’s experience that competent older Americans increasingly have no desire to run for office. So let’s leave them be and ask young people to take the plunge and get on the campaign trail.
Run with either major party, a third party, or no party – just run for something! Sign up to run for office big or small. Run for party chair, Congress, governor, city council, or school committee – just run. Run on whatever platform you like, just please be coherent and have some basic concept of the modern world.
Don’t be scared, just google Lauren Boebert and you will quickly learn that anyone can run for office and win. This writer has worked for campaigns and the Democratic Party and can attest running for office is not brain surgery. You got this. The thing you will need to know is it takes persistence. Knock on every door. Talk to every voter. Ask every family member and friend to donate to your campaign. If you are willing to put in the work, you have a much stronger shot than incumbents want you to think.
In Rhode Island and around the country, young people are winning elections, even when running against long-serving incumbents. Ocasio-Cortez defeated a 20-year incumbent in Congress in 2018, while 25-year-old Maxwell Frost joined her in Congress this January after winning an open seat in Florida. In Rhode Island, Rep. David Morales won his first election in 2018 defeating incumbent Daniel McKiernan. In 2020, Senator Tiara Mack ousted an incumbent who’d been in office since 1985. This last election cycle, 24-year-old Rep. Enrique Sanchez defeated an incumbent who had been in office longer than he’d been alive.
We need less embarrassing politicians. Dear young people, give running for office a shot. No matter what you do, it is going to be hard to look more foolish than many of today’s officeholders, so do it, just run. What do you have to lose?
This piece is part of Alex Morash’s attempt at a somewhat monthly column, Chattering Classes. Chattering Classes looks at the queer happenings in politics, Queer talk around town, and calls out bad actors – regardless of political party – that seek to harm LGBTQ people. Suggested column topics are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.