I wish everyone would just calm down a little. When I say “everyone,” I mean the press and the TV crews and all my colleagues and all the people who advise my colleagues. I think we need to calm down some. You know, this is a terrific country. But sometimes we go a little crazy. Maybe that’s part of our greatness, part of our freedom. But if we don’t watch out and calm down, it all may spin out of control. — Fictional Gov. Freddy Picker (played by Larry Hagman), from the 1998 movie “Primary Colors”
In a presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump it’s no surprise one might have the 1990s on the brain. But I’ve been thinking about this quote since the middle of the primary season, about the time the Trump and Bernie Sanders insurgencies really gathered steam. Since then, things have gotten to the point where they appear to be perilously close to spinning out of control.
There are days when I wish America could just breathe into a paper bag and calm itself down. We are bombarded daily by the latest outrageous thing Trump said, the latest violations of the canons of “social justice,” the latest microaggression. The culture warriors shift the cultural sands beneath our feet faster than we can react, removing heretofore mainstream views on marriage, sexuality, and humanity itself from polite discussion. Another day, another cause. Today it’s Islamophobia, tomorrow it’s transgender rights, Wednesday income inequality, Thursday illegal immigrant rights, Friday police forces’ alleged use of excessive force, Saturday funding of Planned Parenthood.
All of this the breathless media seizes, blowing these causes out of all proportion into operas of righteousness and morality plays. The media creates heroes and villains as it earnestly reports from the latest protest or the latest confrontation between the forces of enlightenment and the retrograde knuckledraggers.
From overblown fears over non-existent outbreaks of Islamophobia to accusations of hardheartedness against those who want greater border security, every one of these dramas deliver elite opinion’s latest moral cause. All the while they subtly convey the message that if you don’t adopt the latest fashionable opinions, the latest “social justice” cause, you are, by definition, unjust and immoral.
You’re Going to Cause Yourself a Heart Attack
Over the last eight years, we’ve seen disproportionate coverage of Occupy Wall Street, so much so that income inequality is now a major theme of one of the presidential candidates. We have Time magazine celebrating the (leftist) protestor as the Man of the Year. We have Black Lives Matter protesters becoming celebrities, celebrated for their heroic acts against police forces’ alleged excessive use of force against minorities, even as their movement is based on “the utter misrepresentation of police shootings generally,” in the words of the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald.
The media has spent more time dissecting Trump’s comments about whether a video exists of the January 2016 $400 million cash transfer to Iran that coincided with the release of American hostages than reporting on the fact that the American government made this payment and that it did, in fact, coincide with the release of American hostages. Going back a little further in time to the Bush years, there were the 1960s-style antiwar protests that received tremendous, almost hagiographic attention (in the cases of Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson, and Cindy Sheehan), as I have chronicled in my book “Vietnam Envy and the Emerging Iraq Syndrome.”
It’s true that I disagree with many of these faddish “social justice” causes. But more than anything else, I am simply exhausted. Being batted back and forth from one social justice cause to another is exhausting, and most of it rarely relates to the everyday life of the ordinary American citizen trying to raise a family, pay a mortgage, and succeed in his career. It is wearing to the average American to be treated to soap operas and morality plays that have nothing to do with their daily lives and are in no way equivalent to the Jim Crow segregation of an earlier era.
Can We Get Some Attention on Real Americans’ Problems?
The “social justice” causes that have predominated over the last eight years are boutique issues. They are flotsam bobbing on the surface of a sea of real and serious issues that are pushed from the news so we can instead grapple with social justice issues that make the crusaders feel good about themselves but that impact at most a small minority of people. And I’d wager a lot of Americans think this.
At the same time we’re devoting inordinate attention to these boutique issues, we’re minimizing concerns a broad swath of our nation shares. While President Obama wades into every police use-of-force controversy with seriousness of purpose, he tells Americans their bathtubs are a greater danger to them than ISIS. The ordinary voter would never know that Obama may become the first president not to have presided over a year of economic growth exceeding 3 percent, when we’ve been told incessantly the economy is in recovery. (Remember “Recovery Summer”? Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s op-ed titled “Welcome to the Recovery”?)
While terrorists rampage across the Middle East, Europe, and, increasingly, the United States, our government claims the greatest threat to the United States is climate change. We drum productive members of society, such as former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, out of business for holding views on social issues such as gay marriage that are supposedly beyond the pale today but represented the national consensus as recently as the 2008 election.
All of this gives the feeling of the spinning out of control Freddy Picker warned about. Respected institutions like the police are under assault while the radical Islamic roots of terrorism are minimized or denied. Issues such as transgender rights, about which most Americans haven’t thought one way or another, suddenly become moral tests. All the while, we are screaming into each other’s faces and accusing each other of being xenophobes, haters, enemies of progress, and deniers of scientific truths.
Will Normal-Person Candidates Please Stand Up?
For the last eight years, Americans have been subjected to what Obama and his former adviser David Plouffe called “stray voltage.” After presidential two terms of incessant stray voltage, what America needs more than anything else is a grounding pin. There is a huge market opportunity for a candidate that eschews “stray voltage” politics and focuses squarely on a small handful of major issues. I don’t think the candidate even needs to have a ready-made plan or solution for these issues. Merely talking about them, recognizing that they are the issues the country needs to deal with, and assuring the country that the candidate’s focus will remain on these issues would be enough.
So if I were running a campaign, here’s what I’d suggest: embrace simplicity. Make simplicity the theme of the campaign. There is a great opportunity for a candidate to stand up and say “I am going to simplify your life” and not be lying. Go out there and say “I am going to calm this place down and get us back to basics. To fundamentals. To first principles.” Call out the issues that have animated the press and a vocal minority as sideshows, endless distractions that equate to fiddling while Rome burns, and tell the American people it’s time for the government to focus on a few things and to do them well.
This candidate would state clearly that he or she recognizes most Americans aren’t occupied with Wall Street, but instead with their careers, families, and bills. My candidate would promise that he would not weigh in on every minor issue, but reserve his energies for issues of war and peace, economic vitality, and domestic security. He would stand up and say he would be the grounding pin for eight years of Obama’s “stray voltage.”
My candidate would promise not to give voters whiplash by flitting from one feel-good faddish cause to another. My candidate would eschew complex, comprehensive Rube Goldberg-esque solutions to problems for incremental efforts. My candidate would explicitly avoid solutions cooked up by theorists and not previously tested on a smaller scale at the states or local level. And my candidate would state from the get-go that he or she is not going to wade into every minor controversy or respond to every inappropriate comment by radio hosts, celebrities, or local political officials.
Americans would flock to a candidate that exudes calm and that states a few common-sense principles many Americans would agree with: that radical Islamic terrorism is a greater threat to our national security than climate change; that the national debt is a serious issue that must be addressed; and that the economy can and should grow more robustly.
Every time someone raises another sideshow issue—often by the media or another candidate in an effort to stir controversy and disqualify the other candidate—the response should be the same: “That’s an important issue, one that we ought to address, but before I provide a response I want to remind voters that there are more immediate, more pressing issues on which my administration will focus.” My candidate would tell the media that a few major issues and events will dictate his or her administration’s focus, not the latest ginned-up outrage or controversy that has a minimal relationship to Americans’ everyday lives.
The opportunity is sitting there, waiting for a candidate to pick it up. If not this cycle, perhaps the next. For parties in search of themselves after the election and perhaps recovering from a loss, advocating simplicity and a return to first principles and the handful of issues on the minds of Americans may be the path back to health. Will someone step up and seize the opportunity?