Politics and Governing Should Be Boring
A lot of my friends on both sides of the aisle are eloquently touching on the meaning of Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol, so I’m going to try and cover things I’m not seeing in the news but that should be considered.
First, when the president and his allies say we need to listen to the protestors and feel their pain and anguish with our political system, media bias, and direction of the country, I’ve tried my best. I’d also ask them to do the same for those marching in Black Lives Matter protests. However, we should all ignore anyone on either side resorting to violence. And if the underlying source of a grievance is based on a falsehood or conspiracy, the right thing to do is to tell them the truth, not legitimize nonsense.
Regarding our political system, I hear the MAGA protestor complaints and frankly disagree. Why is no one explaining to conservatives — particularly in rural America — that if our political structure is artificially tilted in any direction, it’s in theirs! If not for the Electoral College, Republicans would have won the White House once in the last three decades. ONCE! Look at the U.S. Senate. It’s been disproportionately structured in favor of smaller, rural states since its inception.
On what planet would it make sense for California (40 million citizens), New York (20 million), and Illinois (13 million) to have the same number of Senators (2 each) as South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, & Wyoming (all with fewer than 1 million citizens)? And if that isn’t enough, the Senate has a filibuster rule in place that requires 60 votes to pass virtually anything of significance. So just in case Republicans / rural America aren’t disproportionately represented enough, an added hurdle is put in place to block any major change in national policies. Does it stop there? Of course not. Closed primaries in the states favor more radical nominees in general elections. Campaign finance laws make it hard to defeat incumbents and give business groups that don’t want to be regulated a disproportionate voice compared to the average consumer. Gerrymandering allows a majority of conservative state legislatures to draw maps in a way to dilute competitive House districts, create a few safe Democratic seats and a disproportionate number of sprawling, safe Republican districts around them. Many states are so gerrymandered that in many elections, Republicans will win a majority of the seats in congress even though Democratic candidates received millions of more votes. Government funding mechanisms disproportionately send tax dollars from wealthy blue states to poor red states to make health care, transportation, and education costs doable for them. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is, our political system is unfair. Unfair to big states and Democrats. Republicans who understand this work like Hell to keep it that way, even resorting to voting intimidation and countless hurdles that intentionally target younger voters, minorities, and the poor. All in the name of “election integrity” and “stopping (virtually nonexistent) voter fraud.” I would entertain complaints of voter fraud if every recount and 61 failed Trump lawsuits weren’t so easy to follow in the news.
Regarding media bias, this is a fun one. One-sided bias was more of an issue between 1960 to 1990 than from 1991 to present. Why? Because we only had three nightly newscasts (CBS, NBC, & ABC). People read their local newspapers in the morning and watched 30 minutes of their preferred nightly voice (Brokaw, Rather, or Jennings for example) after dinner. That was it. 24/7 cable news didn’t exist yet— no CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. Neither did the internet, iPhones, partisan blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or “breaking news” alerts every five minutes. Did journalists have a left of center bent? Sure. But today, it is irrelevant because most voters are consumers of the news entertainment they agree with. Political news today is to real journalism what the WWE is to real wrestling. Liberals go to liberal sources and conservatives to conservative sources. If you watch an hour of MSNBC followed by an hour of Fox News each night, you’d think we’re living on completely different planets. We are. At no point in our history have we had more information at our fingertips yet less perspective, weight, and verification of what we’re hearing and reading. Local news outlets are being consolidated, funding for investigative journalism scratched in favor of half-baked mindless clickbait for ad dollars. You have to damn near be a professional in the business to make heads or tails of any story and that’s what makes doubt and conspiracy theories so fertile. It makes populist movements on both sides more angry and disillusioned. It’s how a MAGA movement can rise on the right or a socialist movement on the left. The only difference between them today is that Trump took control of the Republican Party and Bernie/AOC are still in the minority of the Democratic Party.
I work in politics/policy for a living so I try to read, watch, and listen to as much of the nonsense on both sides that I can handle. It’s hard to do. Thinking is hard! I often feel like I’m trying to learn foreign languages (which was never a strength). The principal difference I notice between both sides is the militant nature of the “news” consumed on the right. When I’m on road trips, I try to listen to the local right wing talk radio hosts. It’s beyond alarming. Every issue is always life or death, “the Left” is always the enemy, the rhetoric is over the top and physical violence is typically the threatened tool. Any politician or public personality who deviates from the angry script can no longer be trusted and is just in on the fix! That’s been the case since the John Birch Society pamphlets, the rise of Rush Limbaugh (and his countless knockoffs), and the cottage industry of conservative media, think tanks, and pundits that popped up to take down Bill Clinton and morphed into even more paranoia and vitriol through the Obama years. Because these are for-profit media entities that need to keep listeners, viewers, and readers to make money, they have to throw more and more red meat at their followers. They’re kind of like soap opera writers trying to drag out a script and keep eyes on the screen so they can run commercials for cereals and household appliances. When there stops being enough real news to get clicks and ratings, the next step is to spread fantastical disinformation and outright conspiracy theories. Birtherism, the Clinton murders, child sex trafficking at Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in D.C., election stealing, and other doozies went from the radical fringe to mainstream Republican thinking with the help of the internet, Fox News, OANN, and other less than reputable sources of information. It became dangerous when this line of “thinking” became legitimized by the current President of the United States and a majority of Republicans elected to the House and Senate fearful of his rabid base and blinded by their own political ambition. Does nonsense exist on the Left? Sure. I heard and read some really horrible shit from the Bernie Bros and leftist fringe entities during the primary. But you really have to search for it and it is by no means “mainstream” Democratic Party news or thinking. I hope it stays that way.
Tribalism in America gives people on both sides of the aisle who feel voiceless and angry some sense of belonging. It makes them feel like they’re not the only ones getting kicked around and ignored. Millions of people are being radicalized without knowing it. Politics has replaced religion as a dividing line. Politics has replaced team sports with too many people behaving like Philadelphia Eagles fans. And we’re all dragged into it. Even corporations have adapted to this crazy climate by spending millions of dollars on communications professionals, lobbyists, grass roots experts, and pundits just to wash and structure arguments in a way that their target audience (elected officials and their most prized constituencies) are speaking from the same talking points. They’ll even pay for studies from totally different partisan think tanks to say the same thing in different ways to appeal to different audiences with the paid credibility of having it come from sources they trust and believe in. I know… I’ve done it!
We have to make politics less sexy again. Politics and governing should be boring work done by people trained in the field.
Look, I’ve been a Republican and a Democrat. When I was younger, I got sucked in to the right wing media machine and it’s hard to kick out of. I was only able to for personal reasons that forced me to recognize what I was actually a part of. A cog in a political money making wheel that was going against my own interests as a human being. We have to make politics less sexy again. Politics and governing should be boring work done by people trained in the field. Where else do people who know jack squat about a complex field of study think they know more than the people doing it? I don’t walk into my doctor’s office and say, “Wow, this guy has too many degrees and too much experience. He’s far too medical. I think I’ll just operate on myself!” Of course I wouldn’t do that. Nor would I ignore someone like Dr. Fauci when he speaks about a virus because I read a Facebook post by the dumbest person in my hometown who thinks she “researched” the topic of vaccines by reading Jenny McCarthy’s blog post and somehow knows more than laboratories full of professionals with MD/PhD after their names. Governing shouldn’t be a form of entertainment turned into a blood sport. We can’t keep bastardizing expertise because we “feel” otherwise. And if we don’t find a way to talk to each other, find common goals, and agree upon baseline sets of facts, we’ll never be able to overcome ideological differences and solve the massive problems we face. It’s one thing to have differences of opinions on taxes or how best to improve our school systems. That’s normal. What’s batshit crazy is showing up with “alternative facts” and refusing to admit the actual size and scope of our challenges. Just because something is inconvenient or complicated doesn’t make it a “hoax.” Just because your fellow American disagrees with you, doesn’t make him or her “the enemy of the state.” Breaking into the Capitol, stealing, vandalizing, and killing a police officer does that.
Rob Ellsworth is a partner and cofounder of The Majority Group in Washington, D.C. He served 5 members of Congress, in both political parties, as one of the youngest legislative directors and chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill. Ellsworth is a native Ohioan and graduate of Georgetown University.
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