One story dominated the political news this weekend: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., because the employees didn't want to serve her. Amid all the social media takes on whether that kind of thing is appropriate is one particularly passionate argument.
What about the children?
With more than 2,000 children still separated from their parents as a consequence of the Trump administration's zero-tolerance illegal immigration policy, many are crying foul over the fascination with what is being construed as a minor flap over dinner.
The main story is neither a jacket, nor a magazine cover, nor a restaurant's service policies. It's 2,350 kids being separated from their parents by the government and said government's inability to reunite them.— Sam Stein (@samstein) June 25, 2018
Can we get off of the Red Hen and refocus on THE CHILDREN? Full focus, laser focus, legal focus, media focus.— Rhonda Sherman (@rhondapsherman) June 24, 2018
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) made a similar argument.
Civility is great. Fighting institutional cruelty is currently a higher priority!— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) June 23, 2018
It's a valid and understandable sentiment. But it's also simplistic.
To reduce the Sanders flap — and similar developments over the past week — to being about merely “civility,” “a beer” and dinner is to ignore the very important societal questions raised and the kind of seminal moment it could be in our politics. It may not be as important as children being separated from their parents, and it may quickly blow over. But to pretend it is some distraction that is unworthy of our time is to ignore the lessons of history and to gloss over the events of the past three years. And to suggest it will make us all forget about the family-separation policy is to have very little faith in a media that has, to its credit, helped force a change in that policy.
To the first point, the Sanders-Red Hen situation has unearthed (or perhaps vivified) a growing sentiment in our society. It is seen in liberals and opponents of President Trump who are done with playing nice. It is apparent as the Democratic Party gradually sheds Michelle Obama's declaration that “When they go low, we go high” and trading it for “We fight fire with fire.” It is borne of frustration and a lack of results after abiding by the norms of political discourse while Trump and his allies run roughshod over all the old rules.
And from that standpoint, it's an understandable reaction. Democrats, the logic goes, are unilaterally disarming by not adopting the kind of extreme tactics that Trump regularly employs. Democrats, with some good reason, feel as if their side of the political debate is being played for fools.
Whether specific actions like the one taken Friday are appropriate is another question entirely, though. The Washington Post editorial board has warned against this kind of thing, as has former top Barack Obama White House official David Axelrod.
But clearly this is a debate that the Democratic Party needs to have right now. It's a debate that has been repeatedly sparked by key cultural moments forcing people to decide whether the new territory that has been breached is okay to enter. It's Meryl Streep giving a political speech at the Golden Globes. It's Michelle Wolf's comments about Sanders's eye makeup at the White House correspondents' dinner. It's Samantha Bee using extremely vulgar language to denounce Ivanka Trump. It's Robert De Niro using similarly salty language against Trump at the Tony Awards two weeks ago.
It's clearly boiling over. In just the past week, both Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House senior adviser Stephen Miller have reportedly been heckled at Mexican restaurants over the family-separation policy. Then came Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) being accosted at a screening of a Mister Rogers documentary (of all things). Then came the Sanders-Red Hen incident. Then came Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) calling for these public confrontations to continue and essentially urging liberals to harass Trump administration officials.
Maxine Waters calls for attacks on Trump administration: "If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere." pic.twitter.com/jMV7wk48wM— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) June 24, 2018
“For these members of his Cabinet who remain and try to defend [Trump], they’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they’re not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they’re not going to be able to shop [at] a department store. The people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them,” Waters said.
Waters's comments have been roundly denounced, including by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and some will argue she's a fringe figure in the party who doesn't speak for most Democrats. But what she said is a logical extension of the debate and the questions raised over the Red Hen incident. Plenty cheered such harassment of Nielsen and Miller, such was their anger over the family-separation policy. When passions run as strongly as they do with a story like this, actions will be ratcheted up.
In the crucial months ahead, we must strive to make America beautiful again. Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable. As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea. https://t.co/vlpqOBLK4R— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) June 25, 2018
Which means Democrats and Trump opponents as a whole need to decide where their line is for civil disobedience (or, in Waters's case, possibly going beyond civil disobedience). Refusing to serve the White House press secretary for no other reason than her politics and the White House's often dishonest defenses of its policies is a unique occurrence in our society and one that reflects a political discourse being stretched in new directions. But it's also a crystallizing moment for a much broader set of developments.
Events like the Sanders ejection lead to reactions like the Waters one. And the Waters reaction could logically lead to a complete rewriting of the rules of political engagement — if not to political violence. That's a story worth covering, while making sure you don't take your eye off the other very important story of the day (which The Washington Post and others continue to report on extensively, I would note).
To ignore it would be to ignore something that could fundamentally change how our country handles political disagreements. And that's worth all of our time.