Our self-defeating politics of pettiness serves no good

Our self-defeating politics of pettiness serves no good
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Before starting his State of the Union address, President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE appeared to reject an offered handshake from House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-Calif.), who responded by giving him an abbreviated introduction and later ripped the president’s speech transcript in half. The actions of both leaders were clearly beneath their respective offices. Yet, many partisans love it. The gifs, memes and retweets flowed and were coupled with the mean-spirited commentary that dominates our civic discourse today. It’s ironic that people who claim to be so committed to suffering Americans somehow find humor and solace in petty political gestures that prevent us from effectively addressing the most pressing issues of the day.

We’re in the middle of a presidential campaign and at the end of an impeachment process. It’s a time when sound, sober leadership should win the day. But quick insults and “clap-back” receive much more social media attention than calls for civility and self-examination. Apparently, much of the anti-Trump crowd, in the media and elected office, has decided to respond to him in kind rather than with bold civility. Instead of following the example of leaders such as the late Reps. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) and Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), they are abandoning a determined and astute posture to embrace the politics of pettiness.

During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump took our political discourse to a new low. I won’t waste time rehashing a phenomenon that’s been editorialized ad nauseam. We all know his thoughtless rants and lack of decorum were rewarded by his base. His vulgarity was applauded by those filled with contempt for the status quo, who discovered that cordial political engagement wasn’t immediately gratifying or politically expedient. In short, Trump was praised for being petty.


In more progressive circles, a varied but related pettiness has become fashionable as well. Popularized by reality TV and social media quips, this pettiness lacks all the civic virtues that would make it constructive in the public square. Marked by childishness, spite and pretension, the objective is to put someone in their place or to defend one’s honor, usually dishonorably.

The politics of pettiness trivializes even the most serious social and political matters. A talk about systemic injustice no longer is an opportunity to inform and challenge, but instead a chance to demean and “tell them off.” It’s perplexing to see those who claim to be advocates of Americans in need diminish their issues by diverting attention away from the merits. One would think these issues were too important to be mixed with pop-culture trifles. Oddly, those who openly practice the politics of pettiness don’t deny its flippancy, yet they still demand to be taken seriously. But by definition, it is not to be taken seriously and isn’t worthy of representing marginalized minorities or hurting children.

In today’s political commentary and activist speech, disparaging one-liners replace substantive debate. The more defiant the remark, the better, adherents believe — no matter how empty or inaccurate the comment might be. Here, intemperate defiance is the only true indicator of strength and passion. No matter how counterproductive the result, if you’re offending or challenging the right people, then it’s praiseworthy. In actuality, it often just exposes hypersensitivity and the unwillingness of the speaker to endure the pains of self-restraint.

This pettiness doesn’t require the user to be informed; nor are there any other requisite qualifications for the message to go viral. If you can couple a snarky statement with a line from a music radio hit, you’re in business. 

Had pettiness been confined to social media humor and faux-news comedy, it wouldn’t be cause for much concern. Sadly, it’s being invoked in areas of serious consequence. It has seeped into the talking points of our politicians, and it tinges the style of political commentators and so-called “influencers.” 


It has become commonplace for our presidential candidates to lace their stump speeches with expletives. Presidential debate organizers have to warn candidates not to use profanity, and serious congressional hearings often devolve into bad comedy roasts. Many Democrats have resigned themselves to becoming attack dogs who use pettiness to keep their base rabid. Political leaders are applying the reality television model to politics — the more belligerent you are, the more likely you’ll be asked back next season. 

Our social media feeds are constantly flooded with 30-second video clips of leaders making sharp-tongued remarks that do nothing to move the conversation or the country forward. But we “like” it with delusional hope that it’ll somehow harm our political and ideological opponents. It doesn’t, of course. It harms us and deepens divisions. Now when there is a substantive point to be made, only our echo chamber will be listening.

Cheap rhetoric doesn’t accomplish anything, except to prove that we’ve allowed President Trump to lower the discourse. It doesn’t endear or persuade anyone outside of the base, and it isolates sensible observers. It’s a waste of social capital and ultimately self-defeating. By wading in the mud with Trump, progressives have handed him one of the victories he needed. 

Those who think they’re hurting the president with the politics of pettiness are sadly mistaken. They’re merely paying homage to the godfather of the genre.  

Justin E. Giboney is an Atlanta-based attorney, political strategist, and co-founder and president of the AND Campaign, a Christian civic organization. Follow him on Twitter @JustinEGiboney.