Playing Constitutional Hardball on Both Sides of the Atlantic

The NYT sees a new trend in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, and American baseball provides the appropriate metaphor.
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Boris Johnson in Brussels, Belgium on 1/16/2017 © Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

September 03, 2019 14:41 EDT

The New York Times has its own version of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary, glossing words or expressions that appear in the news cycle. They call it “The Interpreter.” Consistent with the newspaper of reference’s heavily marketed image of “gray” seriousness, it is more angel than devil.

Reacting to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ploy to prorogue UK Parliament until mid-October — a clever strategy that allows him the time to play the wolf to the political class’s Red Riding Hood and sneak into her grandmother’s bed before the lass arrives with her goodies — The Interpreter did a bit of research and found the best way to describe Johnson’s game: “There’s a phrase for that, and it’s essential for understanding this week’s Brexit drama and what it means for British democracy: constitutional hardball.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


The real game, the professional version, the only one that counts or is worth paying attention to, as opposed to softball, a friendly sport that requires no essential skills

Contextual Note

The idea of playing hardball, to most Americans, means not just playing to win, but applies to people with the talent, skills and assertiveness that allows them to put on a professional performance. It inspires both fear and admiration. For that very reason, it has a positive connotation since anyone who learns to be assertive will be both feared and admired.

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The Interpreter suggests that in the realm of democratic politics, the term should have a negative connotation. On the origin of the phrase “constitutional hardball,” we learn: “Coined in 2014 by Mark Tushnet, a Harvard University scholar of constitutional law, the phrase refers to the exploitation of rules and procedures for political gain and at the expense of unwritten democratic norms.”

The fact that playing hardball may be admirable in one context and reprehensible in another invites a bit of cultural exploration and analysis. As it’s employed outside of politics, the idea of hardball applies to situations where talent, well-honed skills and clever strategic maneuvering are required to give a player or a negotiator an advantage. Some might call it the basic approach to the “art of the deal.” For the player or negotiator, hardball translates directly into dollars and cents, into a W or an L (win or loss). This is vitally important in a culture in which too many L’s on one’s historic record brands a person or a team as a “loser.”

Softball, on the other hand, like touch football (no tackling allowed), while evoking fun and friendly leisure activities on a balmy summer day, designates a lack of that essential American virtue, assertiveness. Softball is the game of wimps, in which nobody gets hurt and no reputations are ever damaged. Even if a softball strikes a player in the head, it won’t do any damage, whereas a hardball can potentially kill. You pitch a softball underhanded, which means the ball will arrive in a slow arc rather than a blinding, highly assertive straight line served by a powerful overhand thrust intended to confuse and destabilize the batter. Softball always gives the batter a chance to hit and doesn’t require a protective helmet. More importantly, nobody records and reports the score of a softball game.

In the world of political journalism, asking a question that fails to challenge the interviewee’s controversial positions or opinions is called throwing a softball. A good journalist should always throw hardball questions and even hold a politician’s feet to the fire. What could possibly be more assertive than that?

This linguistic and cultural aside should serve to demonstrate the deeper meaning concerning civic values that lies behind The Interpreter’s message. Americans generally approve of the idea of playing hardball, of competing, of being assertive. The New York Times shares the same value system as the rest of the nation. And of course, baseball, played with a hardball, has always been called the national sport. The Times consistently reports the results of Major League Baseball (hardball) and never reports the result of softball games. In the realm of journalism, as a “liberal” newspaper, The Times officially approves of the notion of speaking truth to power, despite a well-documented history of echoing the lies put forth by power (Washington) and only belatedly exposing the truth concealed under the lies.

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One MSNBC journalist, Chris Matthews, calls his TV news program, “Hardball,” based on his claim to be a hard-hitting, percussive interviewer because of his ability to raise his voice and make his political interviewees uncomfortable. But he does so very selectively based on his own positions.

Following one of the recent presidential debates, Matthews played softball with presidential primaries candidate Tulsi Gabbard, who has otherwise been ostracized by MSNBC journalists. That’s because Matthews claims to be anti-war, like Gabbard. With Elizabeth Warren, after tossing a few underhanded softballs, he played his style of obtuse hardball, which consisted of refusing to listen to and take on board what she said. That’s because he’s a fiscal conservative who is against taxes.

The Monty Python long ago summed up the spectacle Matthews offered viewers in these words: “This isn’t an argument; it’s contradiction,” which in the Python sketch was followed by a long series of one character saying, “No, it isn’t’” and the other countering, “Yes, it is.” Matthews may be playing hardball, but it clearly isn’t journalism.

Hardball is thus a manly, assertive thing to do, which Americans tend to admire. But, for liberals, not necessarily in all situations. Playing hardball with democracy, where the whole point is to maintain a level playing field to make sure that all competitors will be treated fairly, undermines American democratic ideals, calling into question the identity of the nation itself.

Historical Note

The NYT used the pretext of calling the sport Boris Johnson is engaged in “constitutional hardball” to highlight a historical parallel between the British prime minister’s version of democratically subversive hardball and Mitch McConnell’s back in 2016 when he successfully blocked the confirmation of Barack Obama’s candidate to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

More significantly, the article concludes that the examples of both the US and Britain may indicate a global trend threatening the idea of democracy itself and undermining the culture of democracy that has been a feature of the modern world. In that culture, people have assumed and have been taught to assume that the combination of elections and a system of checks and balances guarantees that governments will be representing the interests of the electorate. When the power players systematically transform the notion of a democratic consensus — perceived as a shared cultural value — into a brutal and self-interested power play and no longer have qualms about displaying their game to the public, democracy as a concept is weakened and governance risks becoming chaotic.

Since 2016 — the year that saw McConnell’s constitutional foul play that turned Obama’s home run into a foul ball, followed by the vote on Brexit and capped by Donald Trump’s election — the US and Britain have seen their political systems and economies, often considered models of stability, transformed into a chaotic mess in which any even vague sense of collective mission or vision has definitively disappeared. Though that sense of mission or vision of a nation-state always contains something illusory, some convenient fiction that reassures and comforts people who think of themselves as citizens, when it is transformed by egoism and narcissism and exposed as a total sham, the work of a snake-oil salesman, the idea democracy itself is threatened.

It’s hard for democracies to adapt to the rules of hardball, and particularly hard on the citizens.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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