The news cycles that rule politics and determine what “outrage” runs wild on social media have changed how we view elected officials’ role in governing. These daily “tempests in a teapot” mean very little in the long-term, but in the short-term, they are used to substantiate what people believe on broader questions.
We see a news story, for example, like one on a police officer-involved shooting. It’s not the facts, but the narrative that builds around them — true or false — that dictates what people believe needs to happen on a broader level.
It is true, to some extent, that events dictate how we perceive our leaders. Upon becoming prime minister of the U.K., Harold MacMillan — a protege of Winston Churchill — was asked how he’d figure out where to guide his government and country. He famously replied: “Events, dear boy, events.”
MacMillan had won office because events swept the opposing party out of office. He knew well that events could impact him, too.
Nowadays, we’ve taken this generalized truism on events and applied it to everything. In an era buffeted by moral relativism, in which nothing can stand by itself, our only guiding light to determine the need for reform or legislation of any kind is an event.
In other words, we cannot take action on something when no events are forcing us to do so. If we witness a genuinely abhorrent racist act, we may feel an urge to pass laws against racism. But if we can negate those racist events happened, then that proves we don’t need legal reforms. Events determine the truth of ideas.
Everything has become relative. No ideas can stand by themselves; everything requires events to drive it into action. We are a culture and government defined by an inertia that’s never existed before in our government. That’s not the system the Founders set up.
Yes, they designed our system to slow change and make legislation hard. But it’s only our era in which legislation has ground to a halt, reforms are non-existent, and the “best” of our politicians spend all their time being pundits on social media and cable television.
Here’s how this works in action: The death of George Floyd was awful in every way; it was an unjustified use of police force. That event caused mass protests and, now, riots. But the shooting event of Jacob Blake is far less clear cut than that of George Floyd.
Still, both events have been used to prove or disprove the need for police reform. What you believe about those individual moments in time likely dictates what you think on the broader issue: this is wrong.
Add to that the awareness campaigns, where athletes from major sports teams have used their platforms to push political messaging, and you amp that effect up even more.
It doesn’t matter what you think about their messages. What matters is that people use these events to say that they don’t have to worry about reforming police anymore, to erase the need to care. It’s a deflection.
Policing is not perfect and could use reforms. Public-sector unions for police officers and teachers prevent states from implementing better policies, and prevent us from getting rid of bad teachers and police officers. Things like qualified immunity and getting more police officers into hard-hit communities would go a long way toward protecting communities and reducing allegations of systemic racism.
These ideas and policies are correct without ever once factoring in any other event, from George Floyd’s death to the protests taking over professional sports. But what people do is use these short news cycles to cleanse their conscience from ever revisiting the issue ever again.
It works in reverse, too. If all the athletes started protesting the need to end abortion, everyone involved would switch sides. We got a little bit of this when Tim Tebow was a prominent sports figure. We cherry-pick messages and messengers we want to support, while never visiting the truth we need in the moment.
I’m using policing as the central theme here because it’s easy to see right now. The main point here applies to all our major news stories; all the hot button issues work this way: guns, abortion, climate, and the rest.
The other thing about these tempests in a teapot is that they distract us from the real issues. They get us to focus on our animosities toward each other. Every single news story gets couched in terms of getting people to divide up and fight each other.
That means we’re always focused on the personal, and never the broader issues that need addressing. And as this resentment necessarily builds, we see these violent flashpoints between groups.
Fighting over news cycles is easy, cheap, and lets you stay in your ideological corner, believing nothing is ever wrong. Implementing real change requires working with other people, building consensus, and doing hard, costly work.
Until we’re willing to put in that hard work, we will continue to be at the mercies of these tempests in a teapot.