There Is Always a Reason to Be Mad

I’m not going to spend any time on impeachment today. Regarding the controversy of the moment, in any sensible political moment, John Bolton should be called to testify. We’re going to hear his account anyway in his memoirs, so why not hear it now, under oath, when it is most relevant to public debate? Also, in any sensible political moment, if it becomes clear that the Senate won’t call Bolton, he should tell the public what he knows anyway, during the trial. There is nothing to stop him from dropping a sworn statement into the public square. Instead, we’re faced at the moment with this absurd binary—either wait for the Senate to do the right thing or buy Bolton’s book, after the impeachment trial is likely over. 

Can’t anyone just go ahead and do the right thing? 

But I’m going to take a step back. If you follow my writing at all, you know that I’m worried about American polarization. Very worried. And one reason why I’m worried is that our media environment constantly provides each side with actual fuel for the raging fire of mistrust and mutual loathing. Also, actual voters don’t seem to like culturally moderate Democrats. ? Today’s French Press:

  1. Somebody’s always being evil, somewhere.

  1. Can anyone tolerate a pro-life Democrat?

What two dueling cable news clips tell us about our political moment.

I make a determined effort to follow a wide variety of people online. I follow rabid Trump defenders, #Resistance leaders, Never Trump conservatives, Evangelical leaders, and mainstream progressives. And if I’m learning anything from this diverse feed, it’s that there’s always something to be mad about, it’s often (though not always) real, and that grievance or offense immediately locks into a larger narrative that the other side largely discounts or ignores. 

Last night presents a perfect example. First, I’ll show you the clip that rocketed around the right side of my Twitter feed. It features Don Lemon collapsing in laughter as Rick Wilson and Wajahat Ali mock the alleged ignorance of Trump voters with exaggerated southern accents:

As we say in the South, this is bad y’all. It’s bad and stereotypical on its own terms. I’m surrounded here in Franklin, Tennessee, by tens of thousands of intelligent, college-educated Trump voters—and that also happens to describe the vast majority of my extended family. They not only can find Ukraine on a map, they can also recite chapter-and-verse why Elizabeth Warren’s health care financing plan simply isn’t credible. 

In other words, they’re intelligent, thoughtful, and really, really tired of the dumb hick stereotype. And this is where the narrative comes in. The CNN segment above is just another example of what “they” think of “us.” Remember when Ronald Reagan was the alleged amiable dunce? Remember when George W. Bush was a southern idiot? While certainly not everyone in the media fosters these stereotypes, enough members of the media (and cultural elite) do that virtually everyone in conservative America is aware of their scorn. 

Now, let’s turn to the left side of my Twitter feed. This tweet rocketed all over the place last night. It featured Lou Dobbs being, well, Lou Dobbs:

During the segment, Dobbs ranted about Bolton’s ties to Mitt Romney and claimed that Bolton “has been reduced to a tool for the radical Dems and the deep state.” As we detail in The Morning Dispatch, Bolton is a longtime conservative and a longtime fixture on Fox News, GOP senators praised him when Trump named him national security adviser. 

Now? There’s no real consideration of the veracity or gravity of Bolton’s claims. He’s sinned against Trump, and now he’s a “tool for the left.”

Again, this is bad y’all. It’s bad on its own terms, and it’s bad because it feeds the narrative that huge chunks of conservative media have joined what online progressives call #Cult45—the coalition that defines conservatism and patriotism through the lens of devotion to Donald Trump.

There are many smart commentators and outstanding journalists in conservative media, but just as there is truth to the narrative that many folks in the mainstream media and cultural elite have stereotyped conservatives as dumb hicks, it’s also true that vast segments of talk radio and conservative cable news engage in full-time, full-throated, unrelenting devotion to Donald Trump. 

I’m not at all arguing that both sides are always equally bad. The fact that both sides on any given day can point to a particular online outrage (it’s a big country; somebody’s always being evil, somewhere), doesn’t mean that those actions are equally grave. For example, as a general rule, the actions and comments of the president of the United States are more consequential than anything “The Squad” has ever said or done. 

But if you consume a media diet that almost exclusively minimizes or defends the actions of the president and maximizes the political crimes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rashida Tlaib (or—on the other side— gets riled up over every Trump utterance while completely ignoring the outrageous way in which the Steele Dossier polluted American public debate), then it’s easy to see how attitudes harden. There is never a true reckoning that there are profound flaws in your own team, and without that reckoning, there is no humility in the public square—only ever-increasing ferocity, increasing polarization, and eventually the conclusion that your opponents aren’t just wrong, they’re evil. 

Does anyone tolerate pro-life Democrats in national politics?

Speaking of right-wing Twitter, here’s another clip that made the rounds across conservative Twitter.. A pro-life Democrat asks Pete Buttigieg if he’d support “more moderate platform language” regarding abortion to win the support of pro-life Democrats. In his very polite, very precise Mayor Pete way, Buttigieg says no. You can watch the clip here:

Remember, Mayor Pete is deemed a Democratic “moderate.” Certainly he’s to the right of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on economic and foreign policy, but it’s hard to see any true cultural moderation from him or any leading Democratic candidate. Joe Biden reversed his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment (which bans federal funding of abortion). Buttigieg has a “minimalist” vision of religious free exercise. 

There’s a school of thought—based in polling data—that says the Democrats are being foolish. Late-term abortion isn’t popular even among Democratic voters. There’s also an emerging argument—again, based on polling data—that the real sweet spot for American voters is economically liberal and culturally conservative (or at least culturally moderate). In fact, this is the ground Trump occasionally stakes out. He’s a big spender. He rejects entitlement reform. He rejects Republican orthodoxy on trade. At the same time, his administration has been reliably pro-life and strongly supportive of religious freedom.

But for Democrats, actual electoral results tell a different story. There was a time when the culturally conservative, economic liberal (or moderate) could make a home in the Democratic Party. In fact, the so-called “blue dog” Democrat was key to the Democrats taking the House in 2006. But the blue dogs have been put down—often by the same conservative voters who elected them in the first place.

I saw this phenomenon up-close in 2010. At the time, my congressman was a pro-life Democrat named Lincoln Davis. How pro-life? He had a zero percent rating with NARAL and a 100 percent rating with National Right to Life. When he ran his first successful congressional campaign, he vowed, “Nobody in this campaign is going to outgun me, outpray, me or outfamily me.” Peruse his voting record, and he virtually defined “economic moderate, cultural conservative.” He even voted against Obamacare.

Then, in 2010, he got smashed at the ballot box—57 percent to 39 percent. And he didn’t lose to just anyone. He lost to one of the most scandal-ridden Republicans in Congress, Scott Desjarlais. 

Speaking of moderation, you might forget that Obamacare encountered substantial opposition from Democrats—45 voted against various versions of Obamacare. Yet by 2015 only three remained in office. Many of the electoral casualties included the last remnants of the longstanding Democratic pro-life coalition. In the final analysis, it’s a bit incomplete to say that the Democratic Party rejected pro-life Democrats. Voters did. Time and again, when given the option for voting for a pro-life Republican or a pro-life Democrat, voters chose the Republican.

Even more disturbing (from a pro-life perspective), Democrats didn’t have to run a pro-life slate in purple districts to win back the House. Their new class of suburban moderates is strongly supportive of abortion rights. 

Pro-life Democrats can take some solace in Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana. He won re-election as a Democrat after signing Louisiana’s heartbeat bill. But there’s very little contemporary electoral evidence that pro-life Democrats can translate pro-life success in state elections into elections for federal office.

Pundits often prefer to focus on top-down analysis. How are the political elite influencing the electorate? How is the media influencing the public? We pay too little attention to the bottom-up. In the final analysis, we get the parties and the politicians we vote for, and absent evidence that pro-life Democrats can still win elections—or that compromise on life is essential to win in swing districts—expect to get exactly the candidates that meet the conditions the base demands. 

One last thing … 

I’m still reeling over Kobe Bryant’s death. My son was among his biggest fans. Watching Kobe play was a staple of our family life throughout his childhood. In Time, I used our experience as the launching pad for an essay exploring what it means when a child’s hero dies. Here’s an excerpt:

There are a lot of good reasons to worry about our celebrity culture. We lavish attention bordering on obsession on our biggest stars. But it’s also true that true excellence can be a gift to a nation and a culture. It’s a privilege to watch a great athlete at the top of his game. It’s a joy to see an artist perform at the peak of her talents.

And, make no mistake, it was a privilege to watch Kobe. To describe him as a good steward of his considerable gifts is to give him far too little credit. He brought a ferocious energy to the court. He carried that ferocious energy into a will to improve, to drive himself to match or possibly even exceed the game’s greats.

To put it another way, Kobe upheld his end of the bargain. The kids in the Kobe jerseys gave him their love, and he gave them everything he had. And as he poured his heart and soul out on the hardwood, the bond was sealed.

On our Advisory Opinions podcast, Sarah Isgur and I wrestle with the more complicated elements of his legacy, including the terrible rape allegation in 2003. 

And finally, lest we forget that he was indeed a transcendent athlete, remember that he scored 60 points in his final game—including hitting clutch shot after clutch shot with the game on the line. It was a marvelous moment. Watch the last few minutes. You can see and hear the joy of the crowd. You’ll also see his family, and the sight of their beaming faces will break your heart.

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