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‘Doubling Down on the Yeehaw’
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‘Doubling Down on the Yeehaw’

Is there a market for competence in American politics?

Every now and then you hear a phrase that crystalizes an important concept in a vivid and memorable way. And now, thanks to my friend and former National Review colleague Kevin Williamson, I’ve found the perfect way to describe politics as performance, or the transformation of everything into culture war—“doubling down on the yeehaw.”

Kevin used the phrase during an excellent edition of Jonah’s Remnant podcast while discussing Texas politicians responding to blackouts with absurd Fox-style talking points rather than with calm competence. For example, Texas governor Greg Abbott went on Sean Hannity’s primetime program during the middle of the crisis and ranted about the Green New Deal. 

In a blog post, former Texas governor (and energy secretary) Rick Perry went full “don’t mess with Texas” and boasted that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”

I’m no Texan—though I do have an affinity for Tennessee’s first and only colony—but I’d imagine that what freezing Texans wanted most in that moment was power. If it was Texas power, great. If it was power from elsewhere, fine. People were dying without it. 

Even worse, the blame-green-energy meme that rocketed around conservative media turned out to be fake news. Let’s turn to The Dispatch’s own Alec Dent for the fact check:  

While wind energy generation in Texas is down by 60 percent compared to last week, Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the ERCOT, told Bloomberg that wind turbine shutdowns accounted for less than 13 percent of total outages. Woodfin said that a variety of other factors were more responsible for the loss of power than wind turbines, citing “natural gas pressure,” low levels of available gas, and natural gas and coal facilities experiencing freezing of instruments.

Given that four-fifths of Texas’ energy is provided by methods other than wind and that 87 percent of the recent energy loss was due to reasons other than windmill shutdowns, claims that frozen windmills are responsible for power outages are incorrect.

That’s what doubling down on yeehaw looks like. Even when confronted with a genuine crisis, politicians still find time to bluster and wage culture war.

It’s a problem that’s breaking out all over. There’s a left-wing version of doubling down on yeehaw (here’s a contest for the comments: Who can substitute “yeehaw” for an equivalent blue-culture word?) The recent classic of the genre happened in San Francisco, when a school board in the midst of a pandemic and closure crisis somehow found time to rename 44 schools to purge the public square of names like … Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein.

(After an outcry the school board paused the renaming process to refocus on opening schools.)

Writing in the New York Times, Ezra Klein detailed the many ways that politics-as-performance is hurting California, a state just as notable for one-party Democratic rule as Texas is for one-party GOP control. Here’s Ezra:

In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal. Those signs sit in yards zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes that would bring those values closer to reality. Poorer families—disproportionately nonwhite and immigrant—are pushed into long commutes, overcrowded housing and homelessness. Those inequalities have turned deadly during the pandemic.

This passage was particularly poignant, and true:

There is a danger—not just in California, but everywhere—that politics becomes an aesthetic rather than a program. It’s a danger on the right, where Donald Trump modeled a presidency that cared more about retweets than bills. But it’s also a danger on the left, where the symbols of progressivism are often preferred to the sacrifices and risks those ideals demand. California, as the biggest state in the nation, and one where Democrats hold total control of the government, carries a special burden. If progressivism cannot work here, why should the country believe it can work anywhere else?

His point about aesthetics is often quite literally true. It’s become depressingly ordinary to be able to pinpoint a person’s politics based on the vehicle they drive, clothes they wear, and shows they watch. 

And here’s the phenomenon that makes it all so much worse, that gives the culture warrior endless fuel for his partisan fire:

The linked report is just as depressing as you might expect. It turns out that the members of Congress you see on your screen aren’t representative of the actual House:

We found that the House that’s shown on the news is much more ideologically extreme than the actual House. When we divided representatives into five equal groups by ideology, we found that the most extreme groups on each end of the political spectrum were most often given airtime.

This effect is strongest for conservatives on the far right end of the spectrum, though both ideological poles are heard from more often on national cable and broadcast television than moderates. Cable networks were more likely than broadcast to feature extreme legislators, but overall, pushing the boundaries meant more coverage across television networks.

Many longtime readers have heard me decry the practice of “nutpicking.” The term comes from an old Kevin Drum blog post, and it refers to the practice of picking out opposing extremists and highlighting them as representative of your opponents’ points of view. Many parts of our media have turned nutpicking into a business plan.

(This is why, for example, you hear much, much more about The Squad in conservative media than you do in most mainstream publications. To some Republicans, AOC is the Democratic Party.)

Lest you think this is yet another chapter in the endless lament called, “Look at what they (politicians and the media) are doing to us (the great and good American people),” let’s remember that no one makes us vote for any of these people, and no one makes us watch any of these shows. 

While causality runs both ways, these are words that we need to hear more in the American discourse, “Look at what we are doing to ourselves.” This was in fact a theme that ran through Jonah and Kevin’s discussion (please do listen). 

While I’ve always been somewhat cynical about human nature, my cynicism kicked up a notch when I joined the media and gained access to granular audience data. I learned that there is often a vast gulf between what people say they want (please talk less about Trump!), and what they watch (more Trump!). And of course this phenomenon didn’t start with Trump and won’t end after he’s vanished into historical memory. 

There is a vast gulf between believing in good things and doing good things. One is easy. The other is really, really hard. If you seek racial justice, it’s infinitely easier demand the termination of a columnist for quoting the N-word than it is to work to end qualified immunity or to cut through the red tape (and the brick wall of NIMBYism) to build more housing and stop pushing poor families to the margins of the community.

I loved this, from Jonathan Chait:

He’s exactly right. That’s what cancel culture does. It substitutes the cheap and easy (and unjust) scalp for the difficult work of real and enduring social change. That’s what it means to double down on the yeehaw. It will only stop when we make it stop.

In the meantime, we’ll live with the consequences of performative politics. We’ll live with unnecessary blackouts, closed schools, chaotic and opaque vaccine rollouts, and all the other bitter fruits of a culture far more oriented towards confrontation than competence. We may say this isn’t the world we want, but at the end of the day, our votes (and clicks) speak louder than our words.

One more thing …

The most recent Advisory Opinions podcast featured perhaps a World Podcasting First—the first ever debate on originalism and nondelegation doctrine. And I promise that it is far, far more interesting than it sounds. In fact, it’s a debate about our system of government itself. In one corner is University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley. In the other corner is Arizona State University law professor Ilan Wurman. Give it a listen. You won’t regret it:

One last thing …

This is what it looks like to land on Mars. We’re one step closer to the Martian Congressional Republic. I just fear that I’ll be too old to join the MCRN and way too old to serve on a magnificent Donnager class battleship. But enjoy today’s triumph; the footage is fantastic: