Over a century ago, Mark Twain said, “There is no native criminal class except Congress.” In the age of instant Twitter updates and perpetual and instantaneous Facebook newsfeeds, television news shows seem so 2000. So when an exchange between a host and a guest on one of those shows becomes a trending topic on Twitter, well, worlds collide and, for a moment, a political debate proves Twain right once more.
The debate that I reference, of course, wasn’t one—and that’s what makes it interesting. As a recent guest on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News to discuss the sequester, DFL (Minnesota’s Democratic Party) Representative Keith Ellison managed to enlighten the audience by telling Hannity he was the “worst excuse for a journalist I've ever seen," “a shill for the Republican Party," and “immoral,” among other gems.
Of course, since Hannity hardly has a reputation for being a wallflower, one might think his questioning or argumentative behavior caused Ellison’s strong response. A look at the tape and transcript proves otherwise. To wit:
HANNITY: Why are you so angry? You're so angry. Let me ask you a question.
ELLISON: Why are you so angry?
HANNITY: I'm not angry I'm laughing at you because I think this is actually comical.
ELLISON: I'm laughing at you!
HANNITY: Rah, rah, rah, I've got it, I know you're a broken record. Now, let me get you my question.
ELLISON: You're a broken record.
HANNITY: Here's my question. Is it immoral -- is it immoral --
ELLISON: You are immoral.
The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs blog “Smart Politics” observed: “While Sean Hannity is the most demonstrably conservative ideologue on the FOX network, and is known for taking off the gloves with some of his liberal guests, he has definitely given Representative Ellison the floor to express his views when appearing on his show.” Indeed, by their count, Ellison spoke more than Hannity during his last two guest appearances, giving him ample time to answer questions and make coherent points.
While not wildly politically active -- none of his sponsored or co-sponsored bills have made it into law — Ellison has a unique platform: Elected to local office in 2002, he is now serving his fourth term in Congress and, as a convert from Catholicism to Islam, is the first Muslim to serve in Congress. He has appeared on cable news channels dozens of times before. While the clip itself has gotten a lot of attention from various media outlets, few Democrats or liberal-leaning news organizations responded at all -- in praise or condemnation -- to Ellison’s outbursts. Only DFL Chair Ken Martin publicly thanked Ellison "for standing up for working families and defending the President's record." The nearly-absent response by his own party seems irresponsible and lazy.
In a few minutes, Ellison (and even, one could argue, Hannity) pulled off quite a trifecta: He disappointed his party, made a mockery of his own political standing, and showcased how inane and self-serving political debate has become. Sure, politicians have been tangling via the media since the 1800s. But there are significant issues paramount to our country’s safety, well-being and future, at stake -- one of those being the topics at hand. With his six minutes on the air, instead of championing his party’s beliefs and making the case for his party’s stance, Ellison chose to muddle around in the muck of soundbite semantics. Rather than passing on any information that might sway any independent viewers or boost the political knowledge of fellow liberals, his ad hominem attacks left him a laughing stock, a momentary distraction, and a trending topic on Twitter that will disappear as quickly as it appeared.
This is what’s wrong not with politics today, but with politicians. Too many would rather inflate their egos on the soundwaves of momentary fame than sacrifice a fundraising opportunity to actually further an ideological debate or deepen any knowledge of political logistics. It brings to mind something else Twain said: “Suppose you were an idiot and and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”