Mitch McConnell is out of ideas, and that matters
A 'show about nothing,' or running on empty?
Hi, Ari here and my latest is below!
If you are new to this newsletter, here’s how it works; and here’s my piece about Fran Lebowitz condemning Mitch McConnell’s shamelessness, which generated lots of reactions from readers.
If you like my pieces, please consider subscribing now for the entire newsletter:
Now on to my new piece for you today…
What’s the Big Idea?
Democracy is about ideas. It has to be.
If it were just about making things run on time, or national self-defense, or applying the best knowledge to the government’s goals, you wouldn’t need regular voting. Indeed, voting isn’t very relevant for how science informs what the F.D.A. should do, or how to build a weapons system. Plenty of countries do those things without democracy.
The ideas come in with self-government.
How do we want to live and coexist? What do we believe in doing together? What are the minimum values we aim to live by, as a society?
Okay, this piece is starting out pretty heavy. But here’s where Seinfeld comes in.
Seinfeld excelled as a show about nothing. While democracy and campaigns are supposed to be about ideas, the Republican Party now echoes Seinfeld, a comparison many have made. But this is not rhetoric.
Under Trump, the G.O.P. has literally and publicly taken the position that it need not “run on anything.” That’s not just a break with tradition, it’s a break with the whole point of comparing the ideas and options in democratic elections. Consider:
“There has never been a U.S. presidential election .. in which any party decided it simply wouldn't bother with a platform — not during war, depression, or any other crisis the nation has faced.”
That was Prof. Sarah Churchwell in 2020, the year the G.O.P. ran without a platform of policies or ideas.
Trump was on the ballot. Ditching the platform reinforced his authority as a personality above the party itself, and its supposed ideas.
Keeping it 100?
Trump is not on the ballot for the 2022 midterms. But for some Republicans, he might as well be:
Mitch McConnell has told colleagues and donors Senate Republicans won't release a legislative agenda before next year's midterms…
McConnell adamantly rejects [running on a governing outline], preferring to skewer Democrats for their perceived failures.
This is classic McConnell.
He also announced “One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new [Biden] administration,” an obstruction pledge that even he broke this year. (He voted for Biden’s infrastructure spending, when it was clearly passing.)
This is also broader than “strategy.” Sure, sometimes an effective strategy is to attack the incumbent, rather than introduce a new set of plans. Both parties do that. (Sidenote: Some veteran operatives actually say ‘all incumbent presidential races are about the incumbent,’ so it’s pointless to try to ‘change the topic.’ The electorate is mostly deciding whether to fire Pres. Trump or Pres. Obama, in that view, and the race and strategy is best understood on that plane.)
This looks different, however. After the thunderclap and internal realignment of the Trump era, here the G.O.P. is continuing to duck ideas. It is not even making a pretense of ‘defining what it stands for’ absent Trump — in the first race after his presidency ended. That is the intellectual position, or lack thereof.
Politically, this is a kind of codification of McConnell’s longtime legislative obstruction, fused with an electoral strategy that says “They can’t govern! (we try not to let them),” and, “Look at their struggle, we don’t have to even describe our alternative!”
It’s become a political cliche for politicians to talk up the need for a healthy, strong opposing party. It can even sound like “concern trolling.” (An apt term for this era: “One who disingenuously expresses concern in order to undermine or derail genuine discussion.”) But democracy needs viable alternatives, especially in a two-party system (which is also a problem, for another time).
In the campaign, Biden said the U.S. needs a “strong and principled” Republican Party, which sounded especially rich as (most of) that party fought hard for Trump, a literal threat to democracy.
But the larger point stands.
A choice between an idea and no ideas is not much of a choice.
A system of government and power that bounces between one governing philosophy and a “party about nothing” is not on a course to test and refine that philosophy. And it’s not a great way to test viable alternatives, let alone find the middle ground (which sometimes ends up being a good option for the largest number of people in a diverse society). And if America is going to spend so much time debating and fighting, shouldn’t it at least be about something?!
Ari Melber is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
P.S. Here are some other recent pieces you might enjoy.
This title “A show about nothing,' or running on empty?” definitely captures the state of McConnell and the Republican Party.
About Mitch (Moscow Mitch, the grim reaper) McConnell, Fran Lebowitz described him very well as shameful and shameless. Fran Lebowitz is straight talk no chaser, she tells you like it is and this is what I love about her.
Here’s what I think about McConnell: he is very manipulative and very strategic with his agenda (or rather, no agenda).
About GQP: let me talk like your esteemed guest, Michael Steele, it’s all about the power, baby😃. All GQP members and leaders just want the power and to hell with democracy and working for the American people. They are not conservatives anymore but fully blown authoritarians.
At least Seinfeld made us laugh. The GOP makes us cringe with disbelief and disgust. The unbelievable tactics they are using to destroy our democracy is criminal. Our country is in real danger and some lawmakers don't seem to care. God help us.🙏