One of my favorite scenes in the Coen brother’s cinematic masterpiece “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is good for a belly laugh, but recently hit me with the striking realization that most of Mississippi’s politicians have never really changed.
“We’re mass communicating,” exclaims incumbent Mississippi Governor Pappy O’Daniel to the movie’s heroes as he waddles into a rural radio station to take his re-election campaign to the airwaves, which was a fledging concept during 1930s when the movie is set.
And in light of recent events in the actual state depicted in the film, there are only two things separating this pot-bellied fictional politician and the real-life fuddy duddies currently jockeying for Mississippi’s highest office — social media and suspenders.
Now, before you call me cynical, what I’m referring to began on Thursday when two grown men who both already hold statewide elected office went back and forth on Twitter like hormonal teenagers.
Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves took the first shot that day, taking to Twitter to say “Where is our Attorney General Jim Hood? He has given his support to lawsuits to block President Trump’s border security measures. Now he is silent, because he is just another liberal Democrat.”
Reeves’ comments were packaged with a tweet from the verified White House Twitter account that insisted President Donald Trump would use his executive power to address the perceived crisis at the southern border.
Where is our Attorney General Jim Hood? He has given his support to lawsuits to block President Trump’s border security measures. Now he is silent, because he is just another liberal Democrat. https://t.co/Ts6YmTCMbs— Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) March 14, 2019
Ironically, the tweet came on the same day that one of Mississippi’s two Republican senators, Roger Wicker, joined 11 other GOP senators in voting against President Trump’s emergency declaration. And it should come as no surprise that Reeves focused his energy on Hood and the opposition party, despite his ceaseless devotion to being one of the earliest cheerleaders for the Trump administration’s policies — including the one that Wicker opposed.
But instead of leaving well enough alone and letting his Republican opponent look like a mudslinger afraid of a challenge, the perceived Democratic favorite and Mississippi’s top cop, Attorney General Jim Hood, quote-tweeted Reeves’ initial blast, saying “Too bad our Lt. Governor wasn’t more focused on keeping our rural hospitals and ER’s open to help keep Mississippians alive. That’s my focus.”
Too bad our Lt. Governor wasn't more focused on keeping our rural hospitals and ER's open to help keep Mississippians alive. That's my focus. https://t.co/2EM9Tfs6oH— Jim Hood (@HoodForGovernor) March 14, 2019
Exactly 20 minutes later, Reeves fired back, saying “The Attorney General’s job is keeping Mississippi safe. Supporting border security is integral to that job. But Jim Hood follows the national liberal Democratic Party instead of standing up for Mississippians.”
See what I mean?
The Attorney General’s job is keeping Mississippi safe. Supporting border security is integral to that job. But Jim Hood follows the national liberal Democratic Party instead of standing up for Mississippians. https://t.co/wnDY7f6LkZ— Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) March 14, 2019
While Reeves can claim the last word in lieu of a follow-up response from Hood, he kept the argument focused on broad national issues while Hood opted to lean on the rural health care crisis in Mississippi and leave it at that. Maybe Hood didn’t have anything else to say or maybe he had something else to do? Either way, he should have just let it be and focus on winning his party’s primary.
So did either candidate make valid points in this childish squabble? Not really.
Both men hold lofty offices in the state of Mississippi, but in terms of their influence applied to the aforementioned issues, they’re fairly impotent in their current stations and only provided nebulous talking points to attack the other.
But let’s put the campaign issues aside and focus solely on the showmanship.
What’s important to consider in this spat is that, assuming both men secure their party’s nominations, it’s highly unlikely they will appear on the same stage to debate in person — like adults.
Even this week, Reeves declined to participate in a GOP candidate debate hosted at Mississippi State University due to “scheduling issues.”
Rather, I think we’re seeing politicians on all sides following the lead of President Trump, and using social media to “mass communicate” like Pappy O’Daniel with their constituents, as opposed to utilizing the traditional ground game and knocking on doors.
Is utilizing social media an ineffective tactic? Absolutely not. If anything, it’s crucial to a successful 21st Century campaign.
But the actions we’re discussing are definitely symptomatic of the shift in the expectations we place on political conduct. After all, we elected a man to the nation’s highest office who regularly cusses on social media — a concept that doesn’t even seem to warrant criticism from his most evangelical supporters.
This isn’t an indictment of social media, though, and I will concede that politicians have always looked for new ways to harness burgeoning forms of mass communication.
Twitter is just the latest incarnation.
But I’m not sure if either man realizes that these tactics will not have much impact with respect to convincing undecided voters to lend their support in the November General Election — especially in a state like Mississippi, where the political and idealogical divides are so visible. Both candidates are posturing themselves as the party darlings, but I’m thinking this could actually work against Reeves if he keeps his focus on Hood during the primary season.
Through his attacks against Hood, Reeves is telegraphing that Hood is the single biggest threat to his run — the only thing standing in his way — which adds legitimacy to Hood’s campaign in the eyes of undecided liberal voters facing one of the most crowded Democratic primary fields in state history.
With that possibility in mind, could Reeves’ attacks against Hood push those on the left to support the current attorney general as opposed to the wide slate of other Democratic candidates? Only time will tell.
However, I think it’s only fair to try and understand Reeves’ logic in the early stages of primary season. Few Mississippi politicians have adopted Trump’s brand of conservative politics like Reeves, and I would not be surprised if this career politician is trying to market himself with a similar populist appeal in adopting the tactic of weaponizing and leveraging social media to slice at his opposition in the public domain. At least on the campaign finance side, the millions of dollars once spent on TV attack ads couldn’t provide this kind of visibility … and all for free.
I do concede, though, that Hood also made a mistake in responding to the initial tweet, which I believe is what Reeves wanted — regardless of how toothless and vague Hood’s response was. It’s campaigning 101 to lure the opposition out into the public domain with sharp words in the hope their response brings them down to a lower level.
While Hood handled it better than I would have, he still stooped to the same tactics and thus, loses any kind of high ground he had in that moment.
Does holding the high ground win elections, though? Consider the current political environment and answer that one for yourself.
And will this digital tiff have any tangible impact on voters? In all likelihood, probably not — at least with respect to this isolated incident. The average voter has a short attention span, and that idea, along with how fast the news cycle moves, will likely push this online exchange into obscurity by the time you’re reading this column.
But will it persist? Will the snide politicking on social media ramp up as we head downhill into the fall elections? At this point, I’m willing to bet these are just the opening shots.
It’s obvious these two candidates think their primaries are already won, and for all I know, they may be right. But I think Mississippi deserves better on both sides than two grown men quick to bicker while hiding behind computer screens.
I may be just some public school-educated hayseed with no political savvy, but I would personally have more respect for the pair if they rolled up their sleeves and duked it out in a Wal-Mart parking lot. But before you start, I’m in no way advocating violence. I just prefer face-to-face interaction when it comes to altercations — political or otherwise. And since my novice, small-town perspective likely won’t matter to either candidate, this opinion column is all I’ve got at the moment.
And if both Reeves and Hood take offense to this column and would like to display their mettle in person, I will have the coffee made and ready by the time they walk through the door at our office.
So, let’s return to the world of fiction and the gubernatorial race depicted in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which sees O’Daniel’s populist opponent Homer Stokes — a “servant of the little man” — take to the stump with a broom in hand.
Stokes was an underhanded bigot and high-ranking klansman in the movie, but from the stage he utters a particular phrase that could be applied as the salve to this rash of political childishness.
Simply put, I think the entire state of Mississippi would benefit if we “Grasp the broom of reform and sweep this state clean.”
Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News, the Daily Times Leader and Town & Gown magazine. He is also a part-time instructor of journalism in the Mississippi State University Department of Communication. The views expressed in this opinion column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of any of the aforementioned institutions or their staffs.