Prior to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Wednesday announcement that he was retiring from Congress, it was my intention to write this column about a really interesting and thought-provoking PowerPoint presentation released this week. It turned out one subject helped put the other in perspective.
It was the worst-kept secret in town that Ryan had grown sick of the job of speaker, a position he never sought and had to be talked into. Less than 24 hours before his announcement, I told an audience that 12 months from now, Ryan would not be a member of Congress. What wasn’t clear was whether he would retire or resign before the November midterm election or resign afterwards (the odds of him losing reelection were fairly small even though it is a somewhat competitive district). So it was just the timing and circumstances that were really the question.
It was not news that Republicans were facing a worsening situation in the House and the chances were growing that next year’s House GOP leader would have the title of minority leader, not speaker. Why stick around for that? It was also already obvious that Ryan’s version of Republicanism and President Trump’s were not cut from the same cloth, and that the fractured and unhappy House GOP Conference could not have been fun to preside over. So while Ryan’s announcement was an important development, he just reinforced things that most of us already knew.
Far more interesting to me even this week are the broader changes in American politics and society. Some of the more interesting things that cross my desk are PowerPoint presentations prepared by some of the sharpest and most thoughtful minds in Washington, people like Bruce Mehlman and Doug Sosnik. Bruce, a Republican, and Doug, a Democrat, have watched Washington up close for well over a combined half century, and have acquired the ability to explain political trends and developments in a visually powerful way, preparing slide decks for clients and friends that have developed a cult following among political aficionados.
Bruce’s latest quarterly offering came in this week from his firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, entitled “Empowered America: Why the Age of Disruption May Usher in an Era of Reform.” Mehlman posits that, “Reform movements succeed when the methods, motivation & moment converge. We are reaching such a time.” He argues that “revolutionary tools enable revolutionary times,” pointing out that the printing press helped lead to the birth of the Protestant reformation in 1517, television brought the civil-rights movement into our living rooms, and now social media and smartphones have powered the #MeToo movement, exposing the problem of workplace behavior and sexual harassment, long swept under the rug. With social media, everyone is effectively a publisher, Mehlman says, pointing to the billions of users on various social platforms, amplifying messages. But anyone and everyone can also become an activist, whether using their feet or their fingertips, bringing the movements into nearly every community.
Mehlman’s use of the #MeToo movement as an example of technology increasing the velocity and power of a timely message brought to mind a question: Why did the #MeToo movement occur in 2017, with Donald Trump part of the story, and not, say, in 1997 with President Clinton? No question the Bill Cosby allegations played a large role in driving this story, and Harvey Weinstein built it up as well; the field was fertile for this outgrowth of anger over a major societal problem. But it is hard to deny that there is a bit of selective outrage taking place. Inappropriate behavior is inappropriate behavior no matter which political party or ideology the offender belongs to; technology just spreads the outrage much faster than it used to. Women’s groups, Democrats, and liberals who have been so outraged by some of the behavior that Trump has been accused of (pre-presidency, it should be noted), were mostly silent when Bill Clinton’s alleged actions—and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky—were called into question.
But it isn’t fair to chalk this up entirely to hypocrisy, even though that’s part of it. It’s been suggested that 20 years ago, mass communications were far more controlled by the mainstream media, Hollywood, and political parties than today—all institutions that turned out to have long had real #MeToo issues. Now, as Mehlman points out, anyone can be a witness, a publisher, and an activist, so things are far more small-‘d’ democratic than they were then. Lids don’t stay clamped down and victims don’t remain as silent as they used to.
Then add in the findings of the recent Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation Poll that the country is in a far more hyper-engaged, activist mood now than then. The survey found 1 out of 5 Americans has marched since the beginning of 2016, totaling tens of millions of people, rivaling and probably surpassing the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Today more people feel more threatened by or outraged about different things than at any time in memory.
Big things are going on, both on the front pages of newspapers and across our society. It’s important that we not get too bogged down in the day-to-day political machinations and developments and ignore the more consequential movements taking place around us.