At a town-hall-style event at the University of Richmond last week, Ohio governor John Kasich noticed a female student who was enthusiastically trying to get his attention, reacting by saying, “I don’t have any tickets, for, you know, Taylor Swift,” adding a self-depricating “I know, you’re so excited.” She then asked her question, which was about immigration, and Kasich provided his answer:
Whether you like his reply or not depends on your politics, but there’s no question that it was an answer intended to be serious.
For her part, the student felt compelled to author this well-written op/ed in the school newspaper. In it, she sharply criticizes Kasich for his mild, if slightly awkward attempt at humor.
She refers to Kasich’s earlier remarks on spirituality and drugs as “condescending,” but says that the real concern was what his pre-question comment revealed:
Kasich barreled through a Planned Parenthood question, dismissing the young woman who posed it, and derided me when I had the audacity to raise my hand. Kasich came to Richmond to pander to retired Republicans. He could gain points by belittling me and my peers, so that’s what he did.
What continues to strike me is the hypocrisy of his condescension. He touted his ambitious energy as an 18-year-old man, but as soon as I, an 18-year-old woman, exhibited ambition, I became the target of his joke. The same passion that drove Kasich to speak with President Nixon drove me to ask the candidate a question I care deeply about. In a way, I was taking the governor’s advice: “Always ask.”
“Belittling.” “Hypocrisy.” “Target.” “Derided.”
Watch the video again and decide for yourself if Kasich’s comment should have elicited that level of response.
Whether out of a sense of genuine disgust, opportunism, or some combination of the two, the student wrote the aforementioned op/ed. So be it. My view is that the quickness with which people—especially younger people—become “outraged” by even the most mundane (perceived) slight is a destructive force in society.
However, the piece itself isn’t the core problem. The problem is the reaction to it by various media outlets.
To be sure, these outlets are predisposed to magnify items that might be detrimental to anyone who happens to have “(R)” after his name. But I think the coverage reveals something even deeper—something that is poisoning our culture, both in politics and beyond.
This brief exchange with Kasich and the editorial that followed received a signal boost from outlets as varied and prominent as Gawker Media, The Huffington Post, Salon (naturally), Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, MSNBC, and many others. They each treated Kasich’s quip as if he had run to the woman and grabbed the mic from her hand before beating her over the head with it.
A quick survey of the comments to these articles—actually, you know what? Don’t bother with the comments. Bad idea. My fault.
But, it’s easy to guess what’s there. Kasich is a monster. Kasich is a sexist. Kasich is a racist (not sure how that can be tied to this incident, but calling someone a racist is reflexive for many people at this point).
Herein lies the more pressing issue: Any politician who deviates from the usual, endless string of cliches and preprogrammed, thoroughly vetted language will instantly draw a rebuke from myriad outlets that are just waiting to pounce. And, make no mistake, this isn’t purely a Republican problem. There are also a host of right-leaning outfits that do the same thing—it’s just that far fewer of them are considered “mainstream.”
But this is why we get so little meaningful discussion from candidates for elected office. Most politicians have two modes: (1) Talk for a long time without saying anything truly substantive, (2) attempt to appeal to the base with “tough”—but empty—talk.
After Kasich’s joke, we got a little of both. He discusses immigration by analogizing it to the security at a campus dorm, and then simply says “we have to have a border” and “we need to get that whole thing fixed(!)” without going into any real details about what he means or how that would work. And you’ll note that this response, which fits the typical politician-ese of 2015, got no traction at all. Not even in the editorial by the woman who asked the question that prompted it!
Seriously—go back and look at the op/ed from the University of Richmond paper. It focuses entirely on Kasich’s attitudes toward young people, and never so much as mentions the immigration question or response.
Yet, Kasich’s remark was the #1 trending topic on Facebook over the weekend, and the summary referred to Kasich’s remark as “off-color.” Off-color!
How can we reasonably expect politicians to engage in discourse that provides specific proposals if they know that there is a salivating media waiting to write dozens upon dozens of stories lending credence to the idea that anything other than one of those bland platitudes is cause for offense and outrage? How can we ask them to be more genuine or human when any answer that isn’t robotic will draw the ire of someone? When the bar for what constitutes an “off-color” remark is set this low, can we blame politicians for being phony and as “safe” as possible?
Or, here’s a better question: Do we think that an environment like that just might set the stage for anyone who is willing to say whatever is on his mind to make a serious run at high office? You know, because a bored, fed-up American electorate might jump at the chance to signal their disgust with politics and the media by supporting anyone who is willing to “color outside the lines?” Couldn’t it be the case that Americans’ thirst for someone, anyone who doesn’t seem like an insider politico-bot would cause them to support such a person, even if that person also seemed a bit short on substance?
I think in general terms we could describe the American mood at the moment as hysterical. Generations raised on television are now visceral first.