October 16, 2018

JOHNS | The Ideology of Empty Signs

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As President Trump announced the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as Associate Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court this past July 9, protesters gathered at the Supreme Court with placards communicating their opposition to the nominee. But because the announcement had not yet been made, these placards included all but the name of the actual nominee, which was left blank. Markers in hand, the protesters waited. Then, slightly after 9:00 p.m., as Trump uttered the name “Brett Kavanaugh,” they promptly filled it in and began their demonstration. It raises an interesting question: what would they have done if the President had nominated Merrick Garland?

In so many ways, this scene tells us all we need to know about the state of America’s coarsened political divide. What red supports, blue opposes. What red comprises, blue seeks to delegitimize and destruct. What red elects, blue seeks to remove. In these nameless signs last July lies this message: No longer do opponents of this administration need to await and actually ponder a reaction to a presidential action. Whoever Trump supports, his opponents oppose. It is saddening and reprehensible that thought itself, much less any spirit of prospective consensus-building, has evaporated from our political culture.

As is the case in Washington, D.C., so it is here at Cornell. For years, any speaker here who challenged the established progressive ethos has been met not with thoughtful questions or pensive dialogue but with brutal opposition with goal of shutting down the very presentation of these ideas, even if (as is the case with Trump-aligned speakers) such views are embraced by some 63 million fellow Americans. In the last two years alone, demonstrators have shouted over Senator Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), destroyed tickets to prevent fellow students from hearing former Vice President Dick Cheney, and screamed through the doors of the Cornell Political Union following violent threats that forced an event to close to the public.

More recently, on October 10, The Sun published a letter to the editor which argued outrageously that conservative students at Cornell actually deserve all the backlash they experience here. The progressive political movement, which contends that it supports “tolerance” and “inclusion,” in reality has proven seemingly incapable of hearing ideas that challenge its ethos. In so doing, there has not been much tolerance; there has not been much inclusion.

The result of all this is self-evident: The campus, like the country itself, increasingly finds few underlying values and principles upon which we all can unify. Opposition has replaced critical thinking. It raises an interesting question: If conservative ideas are so unappealing, wouldn’t the logical progressive reaction be to let them be aired? The answer, of course, is that they are appealing—and they are thus feared.

To their credit, the American people are acutely aware of the devolution of our political culture. The Pew Research Center this past August found that almost eight in 10 Americans acknowledge that Republicans and Democrats are not just divided on “plans and policies,” but cannot agree even on “basic facts.” In addition, a majority of both those who support and those who oppose President Trump, according to this Pew poll, agree that the other side does not share their “values and goals.” All of this is surely good news for our country’s adversaries: we do not need them to undermine our nation’s national unity; we are proving fully capable of doing that ourselves.

What ultimately motivates this coarsened political divide? The answer is straightforward: The more powerful government becomes, the higher the political stakes. The higher the stakes become, the more political parties and movements see in American democracy a need to win at all costs. Big government rewards political victors, which means that victory at all costs becomes justifiable in pursuit of power. As sure as the seasons change, pundits and politicians subtly shift their stances on the expansion of executive power, the authority of the bureaucracy and the role of the judiciary, with near-exclusive focus on the individuals occupying those institutions as opposed to genuine concern over the size or operational functionality of government itself.

The consequences of this “politics over policy” approach are concerning: Even when our institutions operate precisely as intended in the Constitution, as the Electoral College did in the 2016 election of Trump or as the Senate did in ultimately confirming Kavanaugh, there still is mass outcry. The aspiration for power for power’s sake demands it.

It is worth reminding ourselves: Within the constraints of our Constitution and the rule of law, there always must be room for dissenting voices. Yet, democratic political governance means sometimes winning and sometimes losing. President Trump is our 45th President because the American people so chose him. Associate Justice Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court today because he was deemed the most suitable nominee by our duly-elected president and then confirmed by a duly-elected U.S. Senate. And the next time a conservative or Trump-aligned speaker arrives at Cornell, the institution’s obligation to promoting open discourse and critical thinking means it owes that speaker civility — and maybe even pensive reflection.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester. He can be reached at mjohns@cornellsun.com.