But it hit something else, too: all the notes that allow shared words to swell into shared emotion. You couldn’t have designed better fodder for a meme had you tried. “Nevertheless, she persisted” has, on the one hand, the impish irony of a powerful person’s words being used against him. It has, on the other, words that are elegant in their brevity, making them especially fit for tweets and slogans and mugs. And it has, too, words that are particularly poetic, rendered in near-iambic pentameter, with the key verb of their accusation—“persisted”—neatly rhyming with that other key verb: “resisted.” The whole thing was, for Warren, a perfect storm. It was, for McConnell, a decidedly imperfect one.
But it was also a small object lesson in the way of the politics of the current moment—which, yes, play out within sessions and Sessions, but which also play out on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter. Here was politics as a series of messy, behind-the-scenes negotiations among the powerful colliding, once again, with politics as theater. The dustup between Warren and McConnell may have been, at its core, about the interpretation of Senate rules; for the public, though—or, at any rate, for the people who took to the internet to express their solidarity with Warren and her fellow “silenced women”—it was a matter, more simply, of emotion. It was that most classic of things: a woman (sharing the words, no less, of another woman) told by a man to shut up. The context—the details of Rule XIX, the fact that Sessions will almost surely be confirmed by a GOP-led Senate, the fact that (male) senator Jeff Merkley would later finish reading King’s letter, unimpeded—fell away. The memes won the day.
And not just on social media. “SENATE GOP SILENCES WARREN IN SESSIONS DEBATE,” a CNN chyron read on Wednesday morning. “Republicans silence Elizabeth Warren during Senate debate,” a Guardian headline announced. NPR invited its audience to “Read Coretta Scott King’s Letter That Got Sen. Elizabeth Warren Silenced.” This was one more unsurprising element of “Nevertheless, She Persisted.” As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum pointed out on Tuesday, citing the work of the Yale history professor Joanne Freeman, it was, in the United States’s antebellum years, typical for violence—duels, even—to attend almost every session of Congress. The telegraph, and its attendant ability to send information to far-flung places, almost instantly, changed that. As Freeman noted,
With the slavery crisis in Congress raging full force, antislavery advocates appealed to a watchful and far more immediate national audience in the hope of furthering their cause and mobilizing people to take action. And they didn’t only denounce slavery. They also protested that they were being silenced, unable to freely and openly debate slavery on the House floor. For Northern onlookers who weren’t compelled by the fight against slavery, a threat to their fundamental constitutional rights had real power.
Twitter is similar. Facebook is similar. With them—through them—the point of “Nevertheless, She Persisted” becomes not the Senate debate about Sessions itself, but the silencing of Elizabeth Warren within that debate. Warren, for her violation of Rule XIX, is now forbidden from participating in the floor debate over Sessions’s nomination. That, of course, hardly matters. Instead, the senator has taken to CNN and MSNBC to share her indignation about her silencing. She took to Facebook Live to read the letter that she was prevented from reading in full on the Senate floor; the video she and her staff created of the reading currently has more than 7 million views. As the “silenced” but not at all silenced Senator Warren put it in one of her CNN interviews, a note of triumph in her voice: “They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth.”