Becca Balint: Commandeering social media


Clearly more audacious things have been said in this election year. But to hear the Kansas Tea Partiers tell it, Republican U.S. Senator Jerry Moran crossed the Rubicon when he told a west Kansas Rotary Club meeting that the Senate should hold hearings on President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Moran also said he had no intention of supporting this (exceedingly qualified and experienced) judicial candidate. He told the assembled Rotarians, "I am certain a thorough investigation would expose Judge Garland's record and judicial philosophy, and disqualify him in the eyes of Kansans and Americans." So much for keeping an open mind until he's done due diligence. But no matter, simply voicing his belief that he had a constitutional duty to fulfill was enough to ignite fury.

His remarks were called "outrageous" and "crazy," and the conservative Senator was called "Judas Iscariot" by the Traditional Values Coalition. Explained arch conservative FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon, "This is a perfect example as to why conservative activists have no faith in their elected officials." These folks don't want elected political officials; they want a theocracy.

All of us in politics forget that nothing, nothing, we say can be confined to the individual or group standing before us or the person on the other end of the cellphone. Moran thought he was speaking to Rotarians, but he was really speaking to the world. This is not hyperbole. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat all offer instantaneous 24-hour global platforms.

Last summer someone posted a comment about me on a Vermont news outlet's website that was utterly devoid of fact. Like all my colleagues, I've sometimes been misquoted and had comments taken out of context. But I am only a Vermont State Senator; imagine what our national candidates endure. It is not possible to monitor and correct all the errors that appear online. Nor is it possible to always provide needed context and nuance.

On the national stage, we have a potent Molotov cocktail of voter fury and inflammatory rhetoric that can instantaneously explode in indignation and half truths. Of course, the upside is that there's been a great democratization of information. Using my computer or my phone, I can start each day perusing several national, international, and local news outlets while sipping my coffee from my Vermont home. Incredible!

But a significant downside is that the vitriol, instead of substance, becomes the story. In the case of U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, his rather benign statement (that he believes in upholding his duties laid out in the constitution) is long forgotten after he's essentially been branded a traitor.

Ten days before the unexpected death of Judge Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice Roberts made an eerily prescient statement about the politicization of the court. Robert said, "When you have a sharply political, divisive hearing process, it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms," he said. "We don't work as Democrats or Republicans," the Roberts said, "and I think it's a very unfortunate impression the public might get from the confirmation process."

Obama's pick for the court, Merrick Garland, was also once mentioned by the Chief Justice during his own 2005 confirmation hearing. Roberts reflected on Garland's excellence, "Anytime Judge Garland disagrees, you know you're in a difficult area." Garland is exceedingly qualified to be seated on the Supreme Court.

It's past time to make the obstruction of process the real story. Say it clearly, often, and with vigor. Urge our U.S.Senators to fulfill their constitutional obligation and their political responsibility. We must never let those who govern forget we are a nation of laws.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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