The Nebraska Legislature as Reality TV, with Filibuster and Culture War Drama

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Mention the televised legislative debates, and what may come to mind are the stuffy, political discussions aired by C-SPAN. This year’s Nebraska legislature was more like a reality TV show, with culture war rhetoric, open hostility between lawmakers, name-calling, shouting and more.

Many Nebraskans couldn’t get enough.

“It was addicting,” said Jamie Bonkiewicz, 41, of Omaha. “If I wasn’t there, I would broadcast it every day, just to hear what would come out of those senators’ mouths.”

Watching television, streaming on computers and phones, following in their cars, Nebraskanians seemed captivated by what was easily one of the most acrimonious sessions on record.

“Watching the Nebraska Legislature is like watching the worst train wreck that won’t end and the beatings keep coming,” Omaha’s Megan Moslander tweeted when lawmakers sparked a constitutional challenge by combining the restrictions on abortion and health care for transgender people in one bill.

Many viewers tuned in as national media attention focused on Omaha Sen’s filibuster. Machaela Cavanaugh. They stayed for the surrounding bustle.

Cavanaugh, 44, and a handful of other progressive lawmakers have pledged to block all bills — even those they support — in a bid to derail a proposed gender-affirming care ban for minors. Conservative lawmakers have mulled over other searing bills to restrict abortions, loosen gun laws and divert public money to private scholarships.

So much for nice Nebraska: Time and time again during the 90-day session, lawmakers called each other “trash cans” and “trash cans,” accused each other of unethical behavior and angrily swore retaliation for various offences. Cavanaugh amplified protesters’ chants and accused fellow lawmakers of continuing genocide against trans children.

There were silly moments, too: To keep the word, she came up with a pesto recipe and deliberated over her favorite Girl Scout cookies and the best donuts in Omaha.

Pleasant Dale retirees Art and Carolyn Wagner were always on hand.

“When we heard about the filibuster, that’s when we started watching it on TV,” he said. “We had it on almost every day, probably for four to six hours a day. Some days we watched it all day until the end – 10 hours or more.

As with most state legislatures, Nebraska’s floor debate can be viewed live on public television or streamed online. But unlike most others, it does not provide an archive. A group following the Legislative Assembly has started posting debates on its YouTube channel, but it has not been widely distributed and footage can take longer than a day to appear.

It wasn’t soon enough for many who wanted to figure out what was going to happen next.

Bonkiewicz had little interest in the legislative process until she discovered last year that a member of her family had founded the far-right group Nebraskans for Founders’ Values. She has vowed to get more involved in the fight against what she sees as growing extremism and, when she’s not protesting or meeting lawmakers, she’s been broadcasting the action live.

“It was chaos. It was like reality TV,” she said. “I watched ‘Real Housewives’ and other reality shows, and it’s addicting like that, the drama.”

Nebraska Public Media, which televises and broadcasts the proceedings, said the technology’s privacy policies made it difficult to gauge viewership, but it appeared to be on the rise based on the number of people called to seek help. to log in.

Nebraska lawmakers have noticed that citizens weigh in on both sides.

“I mean, you should see our emails,” said Senator Lou Ann Linehan, a conservative who drafted the scholarship bill. “We have thousands and thousands of people commenting on the legislation and the debate. And they say they watch everything.

Cavanaugh said family members and friends in New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Nashville, Tennessee told him their friends and family were watching after his filibuster made national news. She was overwhelmed by the response.

“The number of people saying they watched is incredible,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s thousands of people. I’ve been in the Legislative Assembly for five years now and have remained fairly anonymous for four of them. Now I have people stopping me at the grocery store. People stop me at Lowe’s. They stop me at my children’s games.

For years on the bedroom floor, lawmakers have mostly ignored fixed cameras. This year, many have started looking directly into the lenses and appealing to “those who watch live”.

The legislature has seen its share of drama in recent years, but much of it happened before live streaming was available, said Ari Kohen, professor of political theory and philosophy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The pandemic has changed the dynamic, with people turning to streaming to combat boredom. Then came the filibuster, as conservatives nationwide pushed culture war attacks on abortion rights and transgender identity, Kohen said.

As the only officially nonpartisan unicameral legislature in the country, the unique makeup of the Nebraska Legislature also helped viewers keep up with what was going on. There are just 49 seats, all held by part-time citizen-legislators who tend to use colloquial language in their debates, Kohen said.

“There are the characters you’re looking for and the characters you don’t like,” he said.

The drama culminated when Senator Julie Slama of Dunbar, who at 27 has become one of the most conservative members of the body, walked out of a hospital, with two other lawmakers keeping her upright, to cast the last vote needed for pass the Abortion and Transgender Bill. . The room echoed with the screams of protesters in the rotunda, just outside the doors.

Kohen compared it to watching a cooking reality TV show — you don’t have to know your way around the kitchen to get addicted.

Nebraskans now have to wait until January 2024 for the next installment, with conservatives pushing for more abortion restrictions and progressives vowing to thwart them, along with rule changes to thwart another epic filibuster.

“They made it very clear to people that they would be back for season two,” Kohen said.

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