Media promotes partisan wars: “Let’s you and him fight.”

In a 1930s comic strip, Popeye the Sailor argued heatedly with Bluto, his enormous nemesis. “Let’s you and him fight,” Wimpy urged Popeye. That’s the first known use of the phrase.

Like Wimpy, the national media goads opposing sides into a fight, because a good dispute attracts viewers or readers.

Of course, bitter divisiveness exists between some conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. Differences run deep, and opinions may cause some to believe their opponents are not only wrong, but bad. Why make it worse?

Here’s a recent story that makes the point. It’s about a U.S. Supreme Court decision that attracted editorial attention last week, because it suggested that a conservative justice had flipped sides.

The decision came on a 5-to-4 vote of the justices. There are supposedly four liberals and four conservatives and possibly one swing justice on the Court.

The big news was Neil Gorsuch, the conservative judge put on the Court by President Trump, had voted with the four liberals. His appointment is one of Trump’s proudest accomplishments, so the implication in some reports was that Gorsuch had surprisingly betrayed Trump.

All of this added up to major news in the conservative-liberal wars. “Gorsuch Sides With Liberal Justices,” trumpeted a Wall Street Journal headline.

The only problem is the case had little to do with ideology. The Supreme Court was struggling, as usual, to determine what the law is.

In 2015, the Court voted 8-1 that a catchall federal law defining a violent felony was so vague that it could not be used in criminal sentencing. In that case, merely carrying an illegal weapon did not necessarily threaten violence. Courts could not interpret the law to make it a violent act.

The decision was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative hero whose sudden death opened the way to Gorsuch’s appointment as his successor on the Court. All the liberal justices and all the conservatives but one agreed with Scalia.

A week ago, the Court had a similar case. But this time, the language of the law was slightly different, and it did not relate to criminal punishment. The defendant could be thrown out of the country if he had threatened violence.

The four liberals found the law in this case was just about as unclear as in the previous case and the definition of violence too vague to apply. The sole dissenter in the first case kept to his view that neither wording was vague.

The minority in last week’s case thought the catchall language differed enough that this version was not unduly vague. The government argued that expulsion is not the same as being convicted of a crime, so the new language was good enough. One justice thought vagueness only mattered in criminal cases.

Gorsuch agreed with Scalia’s reasoning and said it should apply to civil as well as criminal matters. In other words, the new justice took the same position on vagueness as the conservative idol he replaced. He ended up agreeing with the liberals who stuck to Scalia’s previous decision.

If you find all this either confusing or boring, you can understand why the Supreme Court should be composed of people able to think in depth about the law. But you may also see how, never mind the media coverage, this case had little to do with liberals versus conservatives.

Gorsuch was just doing his job, not fighting an ideological war. But it seemed newsworthy to imply that his decision was an unexpected switch to the left. That beats remarking that the liberals, along with Gorsuch, adopted a conservative position for individual rights against government power.

The media has taken to identifying all federal judges by whether they were appointed by a Republican or Democratic president. The false assumption is that they make decisions based on their political affiliation, though their job is to decide based on the law.

Recently, three judges on a federal appeals courts ruled that the Attorney-General could not cut off some funding for Chicago after he had determined it was a “sanctuary” city. The court found the Constitution’s separation of powers allowed only Congress, not an executive branch official, to make such a decision

The Republican Attorney-General was following directions from a Republican president. All three judges had been appointed by Republican presidents. But their loyalty was to the Constitution not to a political party.

In “Let’s You and Him Fight,” a cartoon film based on the comic strip, Popeye and Bluto fought to a draw.

The media should quit promoting more Popeye-Bluto bouts.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.