28 January 2010: There are Serious People out there. And they’re not talking.
Listening to Meet the Press today from January 24th: the first full thirty minutes equaled unparalleled asshattery. Valerie Jarrett, whom I admire, forgot to bring her brain. Maybe she thought since it was television, that would be okay. Talking points are one thing, but honest to God, why bother to make an argument if you’re not going to support it? Give numbers, data, proof. How about a little information to follow the well-rehearsed sound bite? Ms. Jarrett (and, oh, how they all do this) was pandering to everyone—so many words (sound, no fury) signifying nothing. Following Jarrett, there was Senator McConnell (R-KY), who had the nerve to talk about being ready for bipartisanship, wondering why the administration didn’t bother to show for it, speaking about the government’s duty to create jobs (although when/if the government does through stimulus, infrastructure, or what have you, well, “government doesn’t create jobs. The free market creates jobs.”). Senator McConnell, talking incessantly about the “ordinary American” as if he has ever bothered to really listen to one while he’s out shilling for votes. But most of all, Mitch McConnell, just being a Republican instead of a senator.
And then, there was the panel, striving valiantly to match the asshattery of the first half of the program. (Peggy Noonan, stop it.) The phrase “ordinary American” needs to be eliminated from the pundit vocabulary. It’s condescending and ignorant of the fact that “ordinary Americans” either don’t exist or have the most flexible of identities, interests and desires. And Ms. Noonan in particular is really good at using the expression to justify not making an argument: because “the ordinary American doesn’t care about” that, they care about jobs; they care only about what the government will do for them personally. And actually, while in general I rather like E.J. Dionne and Chuck Todd and the panel format on Meet the Press, why were they performing a post-mortem on the entire administration before the first official State of the Union address? Why reduce governance to politics and elections alone? And why assume that one state (MA) in one moment (last week’s election of Scott Brown) is realistically analogous to the entire country in the mid-terms of 2010 and the Big One in 2012? Instead of an informed discussion about stuff that matters, which they all are capable of, they spent the morning in fantasy football and assessing the contest for prom queen.
15 January 2011 Responds
Nearly a year later and the phrase “ordinary American” is still thick in the air, spouted liberally and equally by pundits and politicians, Left, Right, and Center. Regardless of media source or speaker, far too many important discussions devolve into the statement that the public cares only about jobs. And, yes, the public cares about jobs. That’s basic. But we care about everything else, too. And even if we didn’t, working toward job growth and creation (or just talking about it), doesn’t grant permission to stop working on or informing us about everything else—and there is so much else. It’s becoming the lazy man’s way to win an argument or evade an uncomfortable question. Just say “American,” then say “jobs.”
Besides, I still believe firmly that there is no such thing as an “ordinary American.” Most importantly, the whole assumption that underlies that carries the corollaries of “and they don’t know any better” and “they’re not part of this.” Yes, the government is supposed to serve the public, but I truly believe the government (and media) should never forget that they also are the public. They are we and we are they. And all of us, self included (I was clearly irritable on 28 January 2010), should speak temperately and use “Us/Them” divisions with greater care. While there seems to be a concentrated focus on the growing divisiveness in the country, rightfully, between parties and ideologies, it seems to me that the less frequently mentioned divide between government and public is just as harmful.
And I still think we all spend too much time on the political equivalences of fantasy football and prom queen elections instead of the stuff that matters.
28 January 2010: Domestic Appeasement
So, with a faux spending freeze, a faux and unpassable health bill, with every public utterance, the Democratic majority is practicing appeasement with the Republicans. And the punditry is exhorting the administration to do a better job of “feeling the pain of the people” or “communicating” with and “educating” them; exhorting the administration not to do the big, important stuff because the “ordinary American” wants to know “what you’re going to do for them.” And the pandering to the minority Republicans and the pandering to the citizens just amounts to Domestic Appeasement. If it’s really a popularity contest instead of a government, fine. Give us ordinary citizens bread and circuses; give us huge tax refunds, with or without (preferably without) the sound bites and the pretense of actually, say, governing. Although, frankly, I’d really rather you just did your job. I’d really rather you stop “fighting” by saying that’s what you’re doing and just rolled up your sleeves and got to work. All of you. Domestic Appeasement is just evasion. It’s the Lowest Common Denominator triumphing over the Common Good. Is that really the point?
15 January 2011 Responds
Health care reform passed!
It did not include a public option. It does not come fully in effect until 2014. And, despite the current Republican desire to repeal it, it is, basically, a Republican and conservative piece of legislation (think back on the days of Hillary-care and remember the plans offered to counter it; think, too, of Romney’s Massachusetts health reform). It remains to be seen if it is as “faux” as I feared, if the subsidies will be enough to cover the millions of Americans who just can’t afford coverage. (And I still think focusing on coverage instead of access to actual care is probably the long way, the wrong way, but Middle Men need jobs, too, I suppose.) Still, it passed, and while I still see it as appeasement in some ways, it (a.) was the result of rolled-up sleeves and hard work and (b.) makes some things better. And that can’t be discounted.
And we got tax refunds, too, for everybody, as it turned out. (Which was a surprise, actually, and I’d sort of like to rescind that whole “bread-and-circuses” thing, as I’ve not room for an elephant and I’m not overly fond of clowns. I am, however, very fond of pumpernickel.) But that bit of Domestic Appeasement will contribute $700 billion to the deficit. Though, maybe it will, as Charles Krauthammer has said, end up being a “rather large stealth stimulus package.”
This year, post-Midterm election, I am less concerned with the administration appeasing recalcitrant senators. The power balance has shifted and things will have to get done. More responsibility for the Red team results in less need for pandering concessions on the part of the Democrats to get things through. But still, the appeasement of the public seems to me a concern. Case in point: focusing on the elimination of earmarks, which are unpopular but also a quirky way of getting some real things done in the U.S. (concrete, visible, needed things: school improvements, libraries, upgrades to infrastructure). No one likes ‘em, but they’re one method of allocating already budgeted resources. But because earmarks sound so toxic and so wasteful, they’re easy to use as popularity enhancers, never mind the practical need for them, or their paltry $15 billion price tag (again, of already budgeted money, so the earmarks themselves didn’t really cost anything); never mind that too often the loudest voices against earmarks are the same legislators who were responsible for the 16 billion dollar peak in earmarks in 2005.* Earmarks: an example of Domestic Appeasement replacing a politically disadvantageous “real” act.
Two more cases: Speaker Boehner’s speech opening the 112th Congress. (See Ruth Marcus’s article, “Heavy on Platitudes”) And the reading of the Constitution as the first act of business for the 112th. While there’s a lot to be said positively for that act (though, seriously, if you’re going to do that, you have to read the whole thing, even the parts that have been superseded. Honestly, it’s just not that long, and if you’re going to do the whole symbolism thing, do it up right.) But while it’s a “charming little exercise,” it doesn’t “genuinely address the needs of growth, capital formation, and resuscitating the core of the American economy.”* It’s an act, not an action; politics instead of policy: Domestic Appeasement.
28 January 2010: And about the Lowest Common Denominator
Every time the phrase “ordinary American” is used by someone in power, it is clear that that is what they think of everyone who isn’t them. And every time a private citizen calls in to a talk show and asks when the government is going to save them personally from outsourcing (never mind that American labor for some commodities would result in thirty dollar pairs of socks and the like), from poor money management, from cancer, from the terrorists, it’s the lowest common denominator at work. And I am empathetic to all of it—the fear, the trepidation over the future, the environment, health care, college, security, employment. It’s scary. It’s too often sad. And the government should absolutely choose policies that make the best outcomes for the greatest number of people on all these fronts. But the government really should not pretend to provide, and nor should people expect it to provide, personal salvation. Think Bigger. Think of Others. In fact, just think.
The Lowest Common Denominator is everywhere. And I’m bone-weary in the most Kierkegaardian of ways about it. Tired of the people with degrees who neglected to get an education to go with it; tired of the false dichotomies; tired of the failures to admit or grapple with the realities of nuance and detail; tired of the assumptions and the failures on all sides. Tired of the name-calling and the snide comments. So tired of smart people settling for, contributing to, and encouraging the Lowest Common Denominator instead of making the most of the actual opportunity (which many people never get) to Do Something Real. To Do Something Good. Or at the very least, to do something just a bit Greater than the Lowest.
15 January Responds
It’s funny to me how, a year later, these notes have stuck in my head. “Ordinary American” and “Domestic Appeasement” are The Lowest Common Denominator at work. And, so, the L.C.D. is filling the ether of my world, all of our world. Sometimes, it’s the failure of people with power to do the hard things, the necessary things, even incrementally, to advance the greater good. Other times, it’s the failure of us—all of us—to do the small, easy things: it’s my own tendency to snark via Twitter, it’s the House Republicans getting rid of biodegradable forks because they break too easily, it’s the American people’s unwillingness to tolerate the noise level of the biodegradable Sun Chip bag, so now we have the wasteful non-biodegradable bag again. It’s any obvious failure to make the better choice, no matter how inane the decision at hand, or any obvious failure to be as smart or as kind as we actually are, as individuals, as businesses, as a culture, as media, as government.
But there is also a Greater Common Denominator. And it’s around, too. It’s George Clooney, working as a private citizen to prevent genocide in South Sudan. It’s Wikileaks revealing, along with everything else, that “the U.S. government, by and large, was doing in secret what it said it was doing in public.”* It’s Daniel Hernandez cradling Gabrielle Giffords in a Safeway parking lot.
I’m going to do better about remembering that.
*Eliot Spitzer, Fareed Zakaria GPS, 12 January 2011
*David Sanger, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, 9 December 2010