Politics and Culture in 2018
Perhaps when someone becomes eligible for AARP and is somewhat set in his or her ways, the challenge of understanding the culture and politics of the day increases exponentially. Exhibits A, B, and C have surfaced in the last few days with head-scratching impact. Those would be the “anonymous” op-ed in The New York Times, Nike and Colin Kaepernick teaming up, and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Let’s take them one by one.
It is beyond my comprehension that someone would write the “anonymous” op-ed that appeared in The New York Times. It’s not because it showed disloyalty to the president — we’ve all been in corporate situations where disparaging the boss is as common as the coffee break. It’s because of the arrogance of some “senior official” and what that person believe the world would come to without the “unsung hero” efforts of him (or her) and like-minded folks. On top of that, the cowardice won’t step forward and publicly defend those efforts.
The author even implied that these White House cronies, not Donald Trump, were responsible for the progress the country has made, and they helped dodge the disasters that would have occurred had they not manipulated the boss. Furthermore, the main complaint appeared to be more style than substance. There’s no disputing that Trump has a unique presidential style, but that’s been clear for decades, and he ran on many of the policies he is now getting done. So where is the media-worthy news flash? If things are indeed overly bad and an obligation is felt to set the record straight, then just quit and make the rounds of every media outlet that will have you (and there would be plenty). Convince the public you are correct.
The Times says it was taking the highly unusual step of publishing the anonymous op-ed because it is the “only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.” The Times of course neglected to add that the perspective was important primarily because it blasted Trump. The editors added the rationale that the author’s job might be in jeopardy if they revealed his identity. Gee, ya think?
The entire episode has a “Comey-esque” feel to it. Only “I” can save the planet, and “I” am so important that whatever “I” do to play judge and jury is entirely justified. It’s right out of the entitled-Millennial handbook, and I’m guessing that when the truth comes out, the author will turn out to be somewhat lower on the totem pole than a “senior” official — closer to a 30-something wannabe. Comey deserved the heat he got, but at least he went public. The mindset of both is foreign to me, but it’s possibly more representative of our current culture than I want to believe.
The NFL season started Thursday night. I love football, and even the political controversies didn’t keep me from hitting the on button on the remote. But it is a shame that politics has so intruded into what should be a simple form of leisurely escape. If we rewind the tape, we can maybe gain some understanding of how we got here.
During a time of some controversy over the conduct of police in minority communities, a handful of NFL players decided to make a political statement by taking a knee during the national anthem. An obscure quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, became the face of the movement and drew the fire of the president for disrespecting the flag. The NFL decided to punt the issue of why it banned political statements on uniforms, yet it seemed perfectly fine with more overt political statements like kneeling during the anthem.
The issue took on a life of its own, and players lined up behind the protesters — not necessarily because they agreed with their position (most couldn’t articulate why they were protesting) but because they wanted to support their colleagues from what they perceived was unjust rhetoric from the president.
There is plenty of blame to go around here. Trump should never have escalated the matter the way he did. At the outset, there was only a handful of players involved, and the entire matter would have died of apathy if left alone. Even when things escalated a bit, the NFL owners could easily have set policies prohibiting workplace demonstrations of a political nature that might alienate the customer base. But they were afraid of upsetting the players.
Things spiraled out of control, and here we are, with Nike now making Kaepernick its poster child for a new ad campaign. Nike is run by people with an activist bent, so they may be more receptive to this type of publicity. But Nike essentially remains a for-profit company where shareholder value rules. It may seem to be political, but I guarantee you that the marketing army at Nike is making what it believes is the best return on investment decision for the company.
Folks like me might be turned off by seeing my favorite sport take on a political tilt, but I am not Nike’s primary demographic. I’m sure there are reams of analysis showing that the gain from positioning the company as an edgy icon outweighs the potential loss of a more narrow customer base. It’s all about money, and any concern over the possible damage to the political civility of the country is a distant afterthought. Maybe my generation, which just wants to see the players shut up and kick off, is being swamped by the demographic culture that makes everything political and everything about “me.” What a shame.
I have several takeaways from the Kavanaugh hearings. First off, he has performed brilliantly — clearly demonstrating the experience, knowledge, temperament, and skill to justify 90-plus votes. Democrats were in a bind coming in. If the GOP hung together — and the odds of Kavanaugh making a mistake significant enough to peel away a few GOP votes were as close to zero as you can get — he would be confirmed regardless of what Democrats did. However, the far-left base was demanding that Democrats fight with everything they had.
Just prior to the hearings, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) caved to the radicals and apparently gathered the troops, putting in place a strategy to disrupt the proceedings and attack Kavanaugh. This included things like interrupting the process, encouraging audience participants to scream anti-Kavanaugh slogans regularly before they were ushered out by the Capitol Police, claiming that the nominee was illegitimate because of the guy who nominated him, and going after Kavanaugh personally, since attacking his basic qualifications was a bridge too far even for the 2020 Democrat wannabes.
It would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall in the Schumer meetings to see the process by which the presidential candidates decided who would get to lob in the first interruption. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) won the coin toss, so I guess she can claim front-runner status, but Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) came in a close second. Others tried to attain smartest-guy-in-the-room status by focusing on issues so esoteric that mortal humans were utterly baffled before they became utterly bored.
For the GOP’s part, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) played rope-a-dope with the disruptions, allowing Democrats to make themselves look like disrespectful buffoons and the audience protestors to look like they had just been released from the loony farm. That may be to the great delight of the tiny fraction of voters who demand resistance at all costs, but it will alienate the rest of the voters Democrats need for the midterms. If the GOP holds the House, Grassley should get a huge “Attaboy!”
But give Democrats credit — they read the tea leaves overnight and changed course on Thursday. Rather than go after Kavanaugh, per se, they spent the entire morning mired in “process” issues, like what documents they should have access to. It completely shifted the focus away from Kavanaugh and onto the plateau of not having enough information to vote. So when they vote “no” in unison (at least until the 50-vote threshold is reached, after which they can release their red-state midterm candidates to vote in the affirmative), they can duck the question of Kavanaugh’s qualifications and hang their hat on process problems. It may not be enough to completely satisfy the base, which is already complaining that Democrats are not trying hard enough, but it might be enough to soften the blow when Kavanaugh is confirmed.
I’ve said all along that Democrats would be foolish to go overboard on attacking Kavanaugh, making his defeat their cause célèbre for the midterms and setting their base up for the inevitable letdown. So claiming that they would have fought harder if only they had been given all the documents is not a bad second prize for keeping their base engaged.
Still, the entire process has devolved into political theater. Elections mean things, and the president has the right to appoint whomever he wishes. The stakes are so high that only highly qualified folks need apply. But if they pass that test, they should be confirmed regardless of other factors. Sadly, that is no longer the case.
The Supreme Court has evolved over the years to be essentially another political branch because Congress has not done its job. Rather than engage in the hard work of enacting legislation that makes explicit hard choices, lawmakers have instead opted for thousand-page pieces of legislation that confer decision-making power to the executive branch and unelected bureaucrats. That may reduce the risk of giving opponents something to shoot at come election time, but it elevates the power and importance of the Supremes to levels not intended by the Founders. As a result, the confirmation hearings shifted to reflect that new importance, since the courts are now the vehicle by which Democrats enact tough legislation.
Consequently, the hearings have become entirely political and a showcase for those trying to score points with their base before the next presidential contest. The good news is that the Supreme Court may be headed back to its real role as envisioned by the Founders — to call balls and strikes on the constitutionality of issues. I would not even be surprised to see some cases deemed too vague for the justices to rule on and sent back to Congress with a messages to lawmakers to “try harder.” From both a political and cultural standpoint, that would be a breath of fresh air.