The Echo Chamber
Preaching to the Choir Till They're Frothing @ the Mouth
Let’s ramp up the anger some more. That’s just what this country needs – an intensified adrenaline rush of certainty that “our side” has a monopoly on insight, wisdom and truth. As the Glenn Becks and Ed Schultzes gird their loins for another day of energizing, no make that enraging, their respective ideological fan bases, their cronies jump in across the talk radio dial, and via television’s Fox News, MSNBC, and even the Comedy Channel. By comparison, C-SPAN, the cable network that airs actual Congressional debate, seems almost apolitical.
The widening political polarization in this country isn’t a completely new phenomenon by any means. Burr murdered Hamilton two centuries ago; Brooks caned Sumner on the Senate floor prior to the Civil War. But these worst-case scenarios provide no sort of partisan litmus test for our time. After all, when these sordid events occurred, slavery was still legal and women couldn’t vote. Today’s ideological divide is far more choreographed by media personalities than by any rogue politician, and the current “angry media” trend can be traced back to the early 1990s.
The Bill Clinton years fueled Rush Limbaugh’s initial surge to national fame, or infamy, depending upon one’s political inclinations. Clinton had that certain “je ne sais quoi” that the conservative media just plain loathed. Serial infidelity? The “I feel your pain” empathy? Whitewater? Hillary? Smoking dope but not inhaling? The ability to win elections? All of the above combined to foment a hatred for and a disrespect of a sitting president not witnessed since a disgraced Richard Nixon limped through the Watergate scandal before ultimately resigning.
How likely would Clinton’s dubious impeachment have been without the media of the right lambasting his mere existence, along with his every indiscretion? Undoubtedly, Clinton proved to be a ridiculously easy target for the self-appointed matrons of morality who yearned for his political head. Clinton’s insatiable extra-marital appetites were the ammunition that the GOP, via Ken Starr, fashioned into a perjury charge in the Paula Jones case. Many conservatives, perhaps encouraged by prominent media voices of the right, seemed to believe that adultery itself was an impeachable offense. In fact, the Constitution deems that a “high crime or misdemeanor” be necessary to consider removing a president from office. The resulting impeachment trial drove a further wedge between what appeared to be a fundamentalist, Middle American/ Deep South conservative base against a more secular, largely coastal and urban liberal core.
Following Clinton’s foibles, Texas governor George W. Bush ascended to the presidency promising to be a “uniter” who practiced “compassionate conservatism.” In his debates with Al Gore in 2000, Bush repeatedly referred to being able to “work across the aisle” with Democrats. The bitterly contested election results, most notably in Florida, flew in the face of such non-partisan pledges. The 9/11 attacks temporarily united the parties, but then the run-up to and subsequent invasion of Iraq led to new depths of political division. “Red and blue states” were among the media distinctions emphasized during the Bush years to describe the increasingly divided political terrain.
At the same time, the media chasm between the left and right became more entrenched. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart utilized, or masked itself, (again, depending upon one’s leanings) with humor to relentlessly criticize the Bush administration. Remember Dick Cheney shooting his 78-year-old hunting companion in 2006? Stewart and Steven Colbert garnered weeks of material from that unfortunate episode. More serious subject matter, such as Halliburton’s role in Iraq and the “Scooter” Libby CIA affair, received daily scrutiny through such programming as well. Moreover, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, the drunken japes of the twin daughters, and most of all Bush himself, provided endless fodder for Keith Olbermann, Schultz, Stewart and other voices of the left. Concurrently, The Huffington Post emerged online as the left’s alternative to the right’s more established Drudge Report.
However, the media of the right was in no mood to take this liberal browbeating lying down. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel unleashed its big guns, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, more prominently, and more often, into the prime time spotlight. Limbaugh continued his conservative barrage via the radio airwaves.
Enter Barrack Obama and the anger stakes have been raised on both sides of the great media divide. MSNBC now rivals Fox News as the de facto television mouthpiece of the left. Moveon.org paved the way for a spate of increased partisan activity on the internet.
The ideological chasm grows as tolerance to opposing views declines. Town hall meetings and “tea party” rallies turn from surly to surreal, with octogenarians threatening grievous harm upon one another. Congressman Joe Wilson has the temerity to yell “You lie!” at the president of the United States during a nationally televised speech. The depths get deeper.
All right, so you’re good with the trip down political memory lane. Likely I’ve taught you little you didn’t already grasp. You had some idea that the contemporary media had exacerbated its split into left and right camps. And, as opposed to merely reporting the news, over the past two decades, the news organizations and personalities now tend to increasingly shape news events (see the “tea parties” of the right or actions prompted by moveon.org on the left). My point isn’t to debate the merits or lack thereof of an increasingly politicized media, however. My point is that this trend hinders thought, inhibits consensus, promotes intolerance and is generally cancerous to the American body politic.
Never Ending Echoes
The British rock band Yes wisely counseled “Don’t surround yourself with yourself” in their 1971 anthem, I’ve Seen All Good People. Sage advice. Increasingly, however, it goes unheeded by the rapacious consumers of political content in this country. It has become imminently possibly, convenient even, to confront nothing but the views we already embrace twenty-four hours a day. By jumping from print media, to radio, to television, to the computer, one need never be confronted by positions that challenge their own views.
Let’s try it for both sides. Say, a person leans to the right. They wake up and read The Wall Street Journal, on the way to work listen to Limbaugh, check The Drudge Report over lunch, hit some G. Gordon Liddy on the radio heading home, and then curl up on the couch with Beck, O’Reilly and company from Fox News. Bedtime reading? Find your copy of Ann Coulter’s Godless: the Church of Liberalism. Tomorrow, do it all again.
Now for a left leaner. Breakfast with the New York Times, commute to work with NPR, hit The Huffington Post at work while the boss isn’t looking, find Schultz on the dial for the afternoon commute, watch Stewart around dinner time and have a nightcap of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” If you can’t sleep, reread any Rolling Stone editorial about Obama or find your copy of Al Franken’s Lies and the Liars Who Tell Them. And yes, tomorrow promises the same unfettered liberal bacchanalia.
A functioning democracy can be defined by the art of compromise, the ability to reach consensus between competing interests. In other words, to govern effectively, the Republicans and the Democrats need to work together as much and as well as possible. To help facilitate this, liberals and conservatives alike might consider dialog as preferable to a shouting match. While this admittedly makes for a far less dramatic media spectacle, it would inversely promote a more successful political forum.
My political leanings tend toward the moderate left. But I always enjoyed considering William Buckley’s political views, for instance. I read The Wall Street Journal, National Review and even listen to Limbaugh upon occasion. Hearing alternative views to my own interests me and potentially inspires thought and discussion. In any event, it provides a new political lens from which to perceive the events and ideas of the day.
I suspect some of you are cringing. And I get it. Anger is habitual, addictive, a comforting cloak. Believe me, I know. But the way toward better public policy - be it health care reform, economic improvement, or foreign affairs - isn’t through retrenchment. The ever-widening divide between the ideological camps has played out into boorish behavior, predictable rancor, and political gridlock. Thus, we might be well served by attempting to reduce the distance, and the palpable angst, that separates the two ideological camps. The most logical and persuasive evidence for doing so? Look around.