Since When Did We Become So Politically Polarized?

By YeOldeScribe ~ May 12th, 2011 @ 10:01 pm

Quick – name a news talk show on any TV network. Chances are you came up with one of three answers – The O’Riley Factor, Countdown (aka the Keith Olbermann show, as he likes to call it), or Anderson Cooper 360 (Runners-up: Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow). Kudos to you if you chose Cooper, but it’s a sad reality that most people don’t. The vast majority of Americans not only want to be told what the news is, but what they should think about that news. Sometimes, it seems like the pundits themselves are the bigger news stories then the actual news.

Why is this the case? Why do we glorify people giving their opinion on the news instead of the journalists who literally risk their lives in war zones? Whatever happened to actual investigative journalism, a la Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein? How about Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros? Go ahead, click on the link – we don’t expect you to actually know who they are. But we’re getting a little sidetracked here.

The point is that people want the spin built right into the news because we’re so far left and right we don’t actually want news anymore, we want biased news. We want news told by “the good guys” – the people whose political philosophies we agree with. Laugh all you want at the irony of a political blogger condemning bias in media, but it’s a huge problem. (Also, we do our best to link to actual news stories when we can, and we would urge you to go to sites like CNN.com to get your news, and to come here for political commentary). There’s even a growing percentage of people who get their political “news” from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. We’ve become so blinded by bias that we can’t even tolerate straight news anymore – at least we certainly don’t respect it.

So which came first – were the pundits a result of our political polarization, or is the polarization a result of the pundits? While pretty much everyone you talk to will say the latter, we’ll argue that the former is true. Sure, it’s really easy to blame the media for everything, and that’s exactly what people who make the 2nd argument are doing. “It’s the media’s fault that opinionated TV shows are some of the highest rated news shows out there! Damn them for making me turn on my television to watch them!” See our point. Our writer has always argued that all media does is give the public what they want. This is why there was 24/7/365 coverage of the royal wedding. This is why more airtime is spent on celebrities than wars. This is why the 10 o’clock news will always start with someone dying. That’s what the majority of Americans want to see.

But if media isn’t the problem (gasp!) and is just responding to the public’s desire, where does the problem of polarization come from? We’ll take a look at three specific issues that have lead to our polarization, and look into our country’s future to see if things will be getting back to normal anytime in the near future.

No Popular Presidents or Popular Ideas

Since George H.W. Bush, we really haven’t had a President who was very popular. Some people will argue that Reagan was the last really popular president, and we understand why people say that, but let’s not forget that well into Bush’s 3rd year of office, he was considered unbeatable in the next year’s presidential election (which he of course ultimately lost to Bill Clinton). The economy tanked and he had to go back on some promises he made (back when voters actually cared about such things), and that spelled his doom. Even Clinton was popular at the start of his term and well into his 2nd – until the Monica Lewinsky scandal, otherwise known as “Zippergate”. Clinton went from a president who would have been remembered for handling both domestic and foreign affairs relatively well to just being remembered for one affair. Next was Dubyah, and in case you didn’t notice, he was divisive at best, and probably rode 9/11 (and John Kerry’s face) to victory in 2004 instead of winning on his own record. Obama originally looked like he was going to buck the trend and be the people’s President, and then that whole Universal Health Care thing happened, and he became hated again. Even when he was elected, it was mostly a love him or hate him affair.

Where have all the JFK’s gone? Whatever happened to presidents who could bring the country together instead of pulling it further and further apart from within? Is there a political candidate who is willing to appeal to both parties? Part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in right now is a reliance on the two-party system – the idea that if a Democrat says the sky is blue, the Republican must say something different and argue the sky is red. Will it take a legitimate third-party candidate for America to break its polarization? Is there even such a thing as a viable third party candidate? It’s the hope of everyone at Political Progressives that one day such a thing is possible, but we don’t see it happening anytime soon.

No Common Enemy

If there was one thing that America could always stand on, it was that we hated the Ruskies and their communist ways. It’s the only plausible reason we can think of for a) Lee Greenwood writing the “Proud to be an American/God Bless the USA” song and b) for that song to make it into Billboard’s hot 100. On a more serious note, our hatred for “the enemy” has also lead us to some dark places, such as the search to find the enemy within (Japanese Internment and The Red Scare) and our quickness to label those whom we simply don’t like as the enemy (The Axis of Evil). But even in these not-so-bright moments of our history, the idea of having an enemy united us.

But now, the enemy is less clear. Sure, terrorism and terrorists are our enemy, but it’s not the same. You could find the USSR on the map. You could combat Socialism with Capitalism. How to you fight terrorism? By killing terrorists? Half the time, that’s their goal, anyway. Besides Osama bin Laden, there’s no clear head to terrorism either, so it’s not like it’s ever going to go away. Like the war on drugs, fighting a war on terrorism is a war we can never really win no matter how hard we try. Also, there’s no country that specifically says “Hell yeah, terrorists welcome here!” Without a location or a system that we can target, we don’t really have an enemy, and having a common enemy is the quickest way to unify a nation.

Facing Hard Decisions

No president would ever say they had an easy go of things, and for the most part, that’s true. Reagan probably had one of the easier stints in recent memory, because the Soviets were beginning to crumble despite his best efforts and the economy was gearing up for a boom. Bush after 9/11 had a pretty easy job too, which he still managed to screw up. But even those presidents had difficult choices to make, and every president has to face decisions they don’t want to make. Still, especially in recent years, the controversial decisions that have been made have done nothing to help the political polarization common in America today.

First, there that little war in Iraq (after the little war in Afghanistan), that was neither little nor popular. Next was Universal Health Care, probably the most divisive thing to hit politics since FDR’s sweeping reforms in the Great Depression. Then we moved on to fighting in Libya, and deciding exactly what the US involvement there should be. Now we’re talking budget reform, and the President even has the audacity to say that taxes may have to go up, and Republicans are saying that entitlement programs need to be restructured. Especially the last two issues are bound to set off some sparks, but there’s zero middle ground here. People (like us at Political Progressives) who argue that both sides might be right – we’ll need to raise taxes (and not only on the rich) as well as cut spending (and not only on entitlement programs) are being crucified on the altar of political correctness. After all, both sides can’t be right, can they?

And we’re back to the same problem yet again. Both politicians and the public at large refuse to believe that the other side has anything of value to add to the debate and they should be ignored while “the good guys” should be adored. Until we can break that psyche, we’re going to be doomed into stagnation and ineffective government that can’t tackle the big problems facing our government, economy and way of life. Maybe it will take a third party candidate. Maybe it will never happen and China really will become the new hegemon of the world. Right now (at least to us), that’s a more likely scenario than Americans and American politicians pulling their heads out of their collective asses and fixing the problems plaguing America.

Also, the problem is clearly that Republicans are racist bastards. (Hey, you didn’t think we could go a whole post without bringing it up, could you?)

 

(Yes people, we’re joking on that last one. Seesh.)

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