Democratic President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said that then-Republican Rep. Gerald Ford “is so dumb that he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” The media sanitized the word that Johnson originally used and changed it to walk. The origins of this idiom may have more to do with completing simultaneous motor activities but has been generalized to characterize the inability to perform two tasks simultaneously as a sign of limited intelligence.
This was not the first time politicians engaged in negative partisanship and certainly wouldn’t be the last. Negative partisanship is the tendency to support a political party or candidate primarily based on a dislike for the opposition and increasingly negative feelings about the opposing party and its candidates. Negative partisanship is not only bad for our country, but just as LBJ did with Ford, it insults our intelligence.
People who reject negative partisanship dismiss the concept that you cannot hold two competing ideas at once. They know they can engage in critical and nuanced thinking. This group, of which I consider myself a member, is then attacked with whataboutisms or bothsiderism. Whataboutism is the tactic of defending your tribe by highlighting a similar accusation against an opponent. Bothsiderism and whataboutism rely on an unfair moral equivalency.
Recent news and the partisan spin drip with whataboutisms. I have composed a partial list of how I walk and chew gum at the same time.
I denounce any public official, Democrat or Republican, who incites disorder or violence. This applies to the former president or Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., or anyone in between.
I condemn anyone involved in an assassination attempt, whether it is against a vice president, a governor, a circuit court judge or a Supreme Court justice. These individuals should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
I recognize that riots or violent protests are deleterious. I understand that one meant to overturn a free and fair election is categorically worse.
I realize that members of Congress who ask for presidential pardons know they acted illegally.
I can believe climate change is real and yet not buy into the Green New Deal.
I can be a responsible gun owner and support red flag laws, increasing the minimum age to purchase certain weapons and universal background checks.
I can be both bothered by what I heard and saw during the Jan. 6 committee hearings and think inflation is hurting all Americans. I also know that while he will most likely be punished in the 2022 midterm elections, inflation is not President Joe Biden’s fault.
I am comfortable saying that Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was abysmal. I also think he is doing a remarkable job with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
America should be promoting democracy both here and abroad.
I wish Biden would address the issue of immigration. Both securing our border from illegal immigration and making it easier for legal immigrants to find a path to citizenship and join the workforce.
I have friends who are Republicans and Democrats. I know them to be good people and I refuse to demonize either group.
Alas there is hope from the negative partisanship doom loop. Over the last decade there has been a broad, national trend toward an increasing share of political independents. The percentage of Americans who no longer identify with either political party is rising. Political scientists are quick to point out that those who identify as independent are always followed up with the question of which party do you lean toward. My focus here is not about voting behavior rather than Americans’ desire to not align with either political party.
Johnson was wrong to insult Ford’s intelligence back then, and it’s wrong to insult people’s intelligence now. I believe that most Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Lynn Schmidt is a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist and editorial board member.