Universal Translator

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Media Should Recognize America’s Polarization

As a guy who pays a lot of attention to political news, one of the things that bugs the hell out of me is our political media’s insistence on bipartisan solutions for the sheer sake of bipartisanship.  Yesterday’s post about Jay Carney’s effort to deal with a media Villager who somehow believed it was President Obama’s responsibility to rescue John Boehner from Boehner’s own inability to control his party’s Crazies provides a good example of just how skewed this reflexive way of thinking on the part of the Villagers can get.

The political media’s (literally) unthinking demand that the two political parties “cooperate to reach bipartisan solutions” in every instance is at the root of all the more egregious examples of journalistic malpractice.  As the recent kerfuffle over extending the payroll tax cut should have made clear to even the most casual observer, that problem did not result from “both parties” acting intransigently. 

To the contrary, the bill the House was being asked to accept was in fact exactly the kind of “bipartisan solution” that the political press is always demanding our political leaders come up with.  The only reason it was not automatically passed by the House is because one party, the Republican Party, has essentially been captured by its own Crazies.

But the Village media simply cannot bring themselves to admit that only one political party – or even just the Crazy wing of one political party – could possibly be at fault.  And so before the GOP finally backed down in the face of an overwhelming opposition, the media narrative was already shifting to assign blame to both parties equallyAs Charlie Pierce wrote:

The narrative is already shifting from “Republican Vandals Blow Up Democracy!” to “Feckless Congress Can’t Tie Its Shoes!”  The inevitable desire of the corporate press not to get yelled at by the crazy people . . . will result in this whole mishigas being interpreted as a bipartisan failure.  Which it obviously is not.  The tell is the number of stories we’re reading now about the “impasse” in Washington.  This is not an “impasse,” this is a deliberate act of political sabotage on the part of one of our two political parties.  It is a hostage-taking.  Call it an “impasse” and you’ve abandoned truth for neutrality.

This is your political journalism at work, ladies and gentlemen.  These yahoos will take no sides, they will cast no blame, even when one side is clearly in the wrong – because calling out clear wrongdoing would somehow automatically mean they were no longer “impartial.”  They have sworn allegiance to maintaining perceived parity between political contestants, and no longer believe their job has anything whatsoever to do with that quaint notion “Truth.”

This kind of reflexive journalistic malpractice is not just deplorable, it does actual harm to our ability to govern ourselves wisely.

I cannot think of the number of times I have engaged people in even the most cursory of political discussions only to be met with some variation of the tired nostrum “I wish everyone in Washington would just stop arguing and get something done.”  Never do these people perceive that any particular person, people or party is at fault . . . it’s always “the government” as a whole.  But why wouldn’t they think this?  As Charlie Pierce points out, even when one small group in one particular party are clearly the ones causing problems our political media will almost never point that fact out.  They don’t want to “cast blame” you see – to do so would be tres gauche

But the damage done by this type of reporting goes beyond merely failing to hold accountable those who are directly responsible for our government’s dysfunction.  It also runs directly counter to and deceives the public about what the political process is supposed to be about in the first place.  Joining together and cooperating to “get something done” is a fine idea when competing political parties share a general vision, a consensus, but when they don’t then politics is not about cooperation but is instead about a clash of ideas and visions for the future and fighting to make sure that your idea prevails.

From the end of WWII until about the mid- to late-1970s the United States experienced a brief period of domestic consensus, largely because majorities in both parties agreed with and supported the basic tenets of economic liberalism:  (i) a domestic economy built on a balance of power between both labor (in the form of unions) and management (generally focused on large corporations); (ii) the continuation and expansion of New Deal social welfare programs such as social security, Medicare and Medicaid; and (iii) an embrace of Keynesian economics.  Writing in 1950, Lionel Trilling noted that ‘liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition . . . there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation.’”

Of course, Trilling’s observation was – strictly speaking – not true.  There were still a few crackpots around who did not believe in Keynesian economics and who did want to scrap the nation’s social safety net, but crackpots, like the poor, will be with us always.  The degree to which such crackpots had been marginalized by the great post-WWII political consensus is illustrated in a letter that (Republican) President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to his brother in 1954 in which he explained the need for the federal government to undertake certain societal obligations for the good of the American people:

[T]o attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it.  The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything – even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution.  This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government.  Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.  There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things.  Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas.  Their number is negligible and they are stupid.  (emphasis added)

And so long as both political parties sustained this general consensus regarding the desirability of economic liberalism, most domestic legislative battles could, in fact, be resolved in a bipartisan fashion.  After all, both parties agreed on the same goals and – importantly – agreed on the general means for achieving these goals.  The differences between the two parties’ positions were merely in the details.

* * *  

But the problem that presents today is that those fringe Crazies who reject Keynesian macroeconomics and are committed to shredding the national safety net are no longer “negligible” actors on the political stage.  Over a period of decades they morphed from crazy Birchers, through Goldwater, into supply-side Ronald Reagan/no new taxes Grover Norquist/ bomb-throwing Newt Gingrich.  There were then picked up by Karl “Turdblossom” Rove and George “L’il Boots” Dubya, ultimately metastasizing into the Teabaggers and the 2010 freshmen GOP House Republicans.

They are still a minority – again, witness their overwhelming defeat on the payroll tax cut extension, which a vast majority of Americans wanted – but they wield outsized political power because they are backed by billionaire dollars and fluffed by Fox News.

These no-longer-negligible but still-stupid members of our polity have no interest in compromising.  From the payroll tax, to the budget fight to the debt ceiling fight they have made that blatantly clear.  They may as well have painted “NO COMPROMISE” on the Capitol Dome in fluorescent red letters. 

And as this once-fringe group has been increasingly mainstreamed by a media that refuses to examine it critically, that refuses to describe accurately what this group intends to achieve (like, for example, destroying Medicare) that refuses to blame it and it alone for the sclerosis that afflicts our federal government at the very moment substantial government intervention in the economy is most needed, more and more low-information voters come to agree with a group whose entire ideology is actually inimical to those voters’ best interests.

As a result, evidence is piling up that the political polarization America now suffers is not something limited to the halls of Congress and our political parties, but instead is something that right now is driving Americans themselves further and further apart.  And yet, “Rather than catch up with this reality, most Washington commentators still yearn for the good old days of bipartisan legislation driven by moderates.”

However, in the face of an increasingly divided population – defined now by a majority that still believes in the liberal economic policies that once created a thriving middle-class, but also by an extremely vocal minority that believes those policies should be shredded in the name of dog-eat-dog competition and the glories of the “free market” – insisting that bipartisan compromises be reached is simply naive and untenable.

The Bircher/Goldwater/Supply-Sider/Anti-Tax Jihadists have been waging the same war for decades now, and it is – and always has been – a war against moderation.  To paraphrase one of the founders of their movement, Barry Goldwater, these people completely believe that extremism in defense of their goals is no vice.  On the contrary, since Bush Jr. was installed in the Oval Office, these people have become only more devoted to purging from their lists any person who deviates the slightest bit from their increasingly stringent tests of “conservatism.”

The bottom line is that there will be no “bipartisanship solutions” to our domestic policy disputes until – once again – both parties reach a consensus as to what the nation’s ultimate goals should be and how the nation should reach those goals.  And that won’t happen until the political war that is now being waged is finally won by one side or the other.  Until that occurs, the political press does our low-information voters a disservice by refusing to spell out that we are in a political battle and they would be wise to pick a side.  Continuing to call for “bipartisan solutions driven by moderates” is to demand something that simply cannot be produced – like blood from a stone – and only confuses a polity that finds politics fairly uninteresting to begin with.

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