Political theater is supplanting public policy as the vocation of too many of our elected officials. Madison Cawthon, the newly elected Republican Congressman from North Carolina, recently said the quiet part out loud: “I have built my staff around comms (communications) rather than legislation.” In this, he is a man of his times.
Governing effectively and legislating wisely are hard work, while headline grabbing news conferences, filing purely performative legislation and writing indignant letters certain to be ignored by the recipients but equally certain to be widely reported on by the press are easy pickings. The hard road, always less traveled, is becoming almost deserted in this moment of decadence in American democracy.
This preference for sizzle over substance is bipartisan: politicians in both parties like a dog and pony show. But Republicans have taken politics as theater to an entirely new level in the Donald Trump era. Recall the crowd of Congressional Republicans storming a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility to interrupt a hearing involving classified information during the first Donald Trump impeachment proceedings, a meeting many of them were actually entitled to attend by virtue of serving on the relevant committees. Or, most recently, there was the posturing about where and how often to say the Pledge of Allegiance in Congress, the sole purpose of which was to create fodder for faux outrage on right wing talk shows and social media.
But nothing has energized the performers in the GOP like the de-platforming of Trump by the major social media companies collectively and pejoratively known as Big Tech. In Florida, a letter written and posted on Facebook and Twitter by that ubiquitous and indefatigable publicity hound, State Representative Randy Fine, asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to order the state pension fund to disinvest in — yes, that’s right — Facebook and Twitter, as well as Amazon, Apple and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, as punishment for pulling the digital plug on Trump for inciting an insurrection. This idea was quickly supported by Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, another Republican irresistibly attracted by the footlights.
Disinvestment as a political statement is not unprecedented. There was substantial pressure in the 1980s for public entities to disinvest in companies doing business in South Africa because of apartheid, and a number of them did so. In the 1990s, Gov. Lawton Chiles directed the state pension fund to disinvest in tobacco companies because the state was suing them for billions of dollars in damages related to state funded Medicaid costs linked to smoking. And in 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist signed the Protect Florida’s Investment Act into law, which prohibited investment in certain foreign companies doing business in Sudan and Iran, the former because of state supported genocide in Darfur and the latter because of its ties to terrorists.
Apartheid. Lung cancer. Genocide. Terrorism. Trump banned by Twitter. One of these things is not like the others. Trump being unable to tweet does not justify preventing the state pension fund from realizing high end returns on investments in the securities of top drawer American companies, and it is unlikely this will happen. More performance art.
Then there is DeSantis’ highest priority: legislation that would, in effect, dictate content on Big Tech’s social media platforms by imposing draconian fines for de-platforming politicians regardless of the reasons for doing so and for employing algorithms perceived to favor one political candidate over another. This, too, is spite in response to Trump’s snit.
Mind you, there are legitimate antitrust concerns about the dominance of the Big Tech behemoths in the social media space. And there are good reasons to re-examine Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects social media platforms from liability for third party content posted on their sites. But DeSantis’ proposed homage to Trump would not survive its first contact with the First Amendment in any federal courtroom, even with a Trump appointed judge on the bench. Only if the state of Florida could require Fox News to provide a nightly time slot for Bernie Sanders or make the New York Times publish a weekly column by Steve Bannon would this dog — and I mean dog — hunt.
Someone who fell off the turnip truck in Tallahassee yesterday might think that the agenda of DeSantis and his coadjutors in the upcoming legislative session would prioritize combatting the pandemic, managing a major budget crisis and solving the other serious problems Florida currently faces over trying to prop up Parler and mollify the man at Mar-A-Lago. But he would be wrong.
Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.