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How far do we let casual dress go? Do you agree with Ms. Noonan?

We want to be respected but no longer think we need to be respectable.

For years I’ve had a thought whose expression I could never get right, but it applies to our subject this week, so here goes:

Since the triumphant end of World War II, America has come to enjoy greatly the idea of its pre-eminence. We’re “the leader of the free world,” we dominate science, medicine, philanthropy. We teach emerging nations the ways of democratic governance; we have the biggest economy and arsenal; we win all the medals, from the Nobel Prizes to the Olympics. This has been the way of things for nearly 80 years, and for much of that time we brought to the task of greatness a certain earnestness of style. We had a lot of brio and loved our wins, but we politely applauded for the other teams from the Olympic stands, and our diplomats and political figures—JFK, Reagan—walked through the world with a natural but also careful dignity.

Which was good, because pre-eminence always entails obligations. You have to act the part. You have to present yourself with dignity. You have to comport yourself with class.

For some time—let’s say since the turn of this century—we’ve been at a point in our power where we still love to insist on the pre-eminence—USA! USA!—while increasingly ignoring the responsibilities.

Babies acting out on the CapitolThat is the thought I want to express: We want to be respected but no longer think we need to be respectable.

We are in a crisis of political comportment. We are witnessing the rise of the classless. Our politicians are becoming degenerate. This has been happening for a while but gets worse as the country coarsens. We are defining deviancy ever downward.

Two examples from the past two weeks. One is the congresswoman who was witnessed sexually groping and being groped by a friend in a theater, seated among what looked like 1,000 people of all ages. The other is the candidate for Virginia’s House of Delegates who performed a series of live sex acts with her husband on a pornographic website, and the videos were then archived on another site that wasn’t password-protected. She requested money for each sexual act, saying she was “raising money for a good cause.” Someone called it a breakthrough in small-donor outreach.

It was within this recent context that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did something that isn’t in the same league in terms of shock but nonetheless has a deep institutional resonance. He quietly swept away a centuries-old tradition that senators dress as adults on the floor of the Senate. Business attire is no longer formally required. Mr. Schumer apparently doesn’t know—lucky him, life apparently hasn’t taught him—that when you ask less of people they don’t give you less; they give you much, much less. So we must brace ourselves.

His decision is apparently connected to the desires of Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who enjoys parading around in gym shorts and a hoodie. Why would his desires receive such precedence?

Because he has political needs. He must double down on his brand. He imagines that dressing like a slob deepens his perceived identification with the working class. But this kind of thing doesn’t make you “authentic”; it just makes you a different kind of phony. Mr. Fetterman, born into affluence and privilege, reacted to criticism of Mr. Schumer’s decision with an air of snotty entitlement. He mocked critics, making woo-woo monster sounds to reporters and telling a House critic to “get your s— together.” He said Republicans were “losing their minds” and ought to have better things to do.

Here are reasons John Fetterman, and all senators, should dress like an adult.

It shows respect for colleagues. It implies you see them as embarked on the serious business of the nation, in which you wish to join them.

It shows respect for the institution. “Daniel Webster walked there.” And Henry Clay, “Fighting Bob” La Follette, Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Taft. The U.S. Senate is the self-declared world’s greatest deliberative body.

It shows a mature acceptance of your role, suggesting you’ve internalized the idea of service. You are a public servant; servants by definition make sacrifices.

It reflects an inner discipline. It’s not always easy or convenient to dress like a grown-up. You’ve got to get the suit from the cleaners, the shoes from the cobbler. The effort means you bothered, took the time, went to the trouble.

It reflects an inner modesty. You’d like to be in sneaks and shorts but you admit that what you’d like isn’t the most important thing. It shows that thoughts of your own comfort aren’t No. 1 in your hierarchy of concerns. Also, you know you’re only one of 100, and as 1% of the whole you wouldn’t insist on officially lowering standards for the other 99.

It bows to the idea of “standards” itself, which implies you bow to other standards too, such as how you speak and what you say.

It shows you understand that America now has a problem with showing respect. We can’t take a seat on a plane without causing an incident, can’t be in a stadium without a fight. You would never, given that context, move for standards to become more lax.

It shows you admit to yourself that you’re at an age and stage when part of your job is to model for the young how to behave, how to be. It shows you’re not a selfish slob who doesn’t know what time it is.

It shows you don’t think you’re better than others or deserving of greater rights. News reporters outside the hearing room operate under a general dress code; citizens who testify before Congress do so in business dress. The old dress code still applies to Senate staffers. They don’t show up in torn undershirts and sandals. Why are you better than they are? Conversely, why would their dressing like you make anything in America better?

It shows, finally, that you understand that as a high elected official of the United States you owe the country, and the world, the outward signs of maturity, judgment and earnestness. That isn’t asking too much. It is a baseline minimum.

Also, the least people could do in public life now is make everything look a little better, not a little worse.

I hope Mr. Fetterman’s colleagues don’t join him in taking another brick out of the Capitol facade but quietly rebuke him, and Mr. Schumer, by very clearly not joining in, by showing up for work in your sober, serious best.

I leave you with a picture of some dark day in the future. China moves on Taiwan, and perhaps the White House, whoever’s in it, bobbles, or is unsure, or makes immediate mistakes. Everything is uncertain, anxiety high. All of us, and much of the world, will look for voices in Congress who can steady things—voices of deliberation and calm. And we’ll turn our lonely eyes and see . . . the congresswoman from the theater, the senator in his play clothes.

That will be a bad moment.

How people bear themselves has implications greater than we know. It’s not about “sartorial choice.” It’s about who we need you to be—and who you asked to be when you first ran.

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