It’s the summer of 2012 and the tightly contested presidential race just beginning to ramp up. Right about this time, a political phenomenon affectionately referred to as “silly season” begins (although, many political observers could be forgiven for thinking that “silly season” kicked off many months ago). This period is marked by substanceless debates over cultural touchstones that allow political partisans to easily identify the tribal distinctions between factions. Today, there is one debate that is amassing its own gravity and quickly becoming the most laughably foolish argument of the year: what are the social values of a fast food chicken restaurant what side are you on?
First, let’s define a silly season topic. For our purposes, a silly season political story occurs in the summer months of an election year – general or midterm election. The story becomes viral and the topic becomes a cultural litmus test that serves as a source of identity. Eventually, influential cultural icons are drawn into the debate. The debate usually dies with a whimper rather than a bang. History has a way of putting these stories in perspective and, as the autumn months settle in, a more substantive debate takes the place of the frivolous silly season topic.
There are many recent examples of silly season stories. A plague of sharks dominated the headlines in the summer of 2001 before the 9/11 attacks put those stories into thier proper perspective. In the summer of 2008, childhood obesity captured the nation’s attention before the bottom fell out of the economy and the political debate became remarkably more sober. In 2010, politicians on both sides of the aisle had to go on the record about how they felt about New York City’s proposed “Ground Zero Mosque.”
This year, the fast food chain Chick-Fil-A and its founder’s views on gay marriage have begun to dominate the political debate. Pundits and politicians alike are making a statement by either consuming or choosing to abstain from ingesting the restaurant’s fried poultry. It is not often that you can identify a ridiculous silly season story at its height but this one is about as terrifyingly absurd as it gets.
The Chick-Fil-A debate has been raging for weeks, but on Thursday a turning point was reached. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, an outspoken social conservative, took to Twitter to tell his supporters that he and his family were enjoying Chick-Fil-A (read: making a bold political statement).
Earlier this week, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino pledged to block the chain from opening up a location in Boston and sent a public letter to the chain’s president that has become an internet sensation among the restaurant’s opponents.
On Thursday, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel, a longtime supporter of gay marriage rights, joined a local alderman in supporting a ban on the restaurant setting up a franchise in his ward.
Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune that he does not believe the restaurant’s “values are not Chicago values.” “They disrespect our fellow neighbors and residents,” Emanuel said. “This would be a bad investment, since it would be empty.”
With the entry into this debate of such prominent politicians like a former presidential candidate who came close to becoming his party’s nominee and the mayor of a major American city who used to serve as the president’s White House Chief of Staff, the shark has been jumped.
The stunning stupidity of this debate will become apparent very shortly. There is no shortage of looming crises on the horizon that are ready to burst onto the national scene as the presidential election heats up in the fall – most of them economic, ranging from the collapse of Europe’s more fragile Eurozone economies to a double dip recession in the U.S.
Even if there is no major story that breaks in the fall which showcases just how silly this particular “silly season” debate is, everyone on one or the other side of this argument does not look especially serious at the moment.
Me? I prefer Wendy’s.
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