Sunday, February 19, 2017
How did this country get so polarized?
(I would maintain that there is a parallel phenomenon happening in the religious world, as well, in this country. Rather than the Protestant/Catholic/Jewish breakdown of my youth, we now have liberal Protestants, Catholics and Jews on one side and conservative Protestants, Catholics and Jews on the other. And those in each "silo" have more in common with each other than they do with their coreligionists in the other "silo." The center, in effect, has been hollowed out -- like it has, politically -- for the poles. But that's the subject of another post.)
So how did we get here, politically? This country has to be more polarized than at any time since the 1960s. (It's probably worse than at any time since the 1860s.) As someone who lived through that time (the 1960s, wise guy), although very young, I would submit that today is even worse. Much worse. It's almost as though we have a low-grade, non-shooting civil war going on in this country. And, unlike the real Civil War, this one isn't based on geography; it cuts across family lines. (It's a little geography-based: cities tend to be more liberal while rural areas are more conservative; the suburbs are probably on the frontlines of the conflict.) But if you're like me, you have a close relative with whom you can't even talk about politics anymore.
(In my case it's my sister; we've gotten to a point where we try to confine our conversations mostly to sports and the weather. And politics still manages to intrude! To give you just one example, we were talking about Rush Hospital and autism research recently when she suddenly launched into a diatribe about how "the Europeans" wait for the government to fund research while private hospitals in the U. S. like Rush take the initiative themselves. Never mind that she has no idea what she's talking about; the argument fits nicely into her predetermined narrative and that's all that matters.)
So, again, how did we get here? How did this country become so polarized that you have to consider someone's political leanings before inviting them over for Thanksgiving? Or that you would rather your child marry anyone so long as their politics aren't too different from yours?
Well, I guess it's obvious, isn't it? In this world of cable TV and the internet we get to choose our own news sources and essentially choose not just our political opinions, but our own facts and realities as well. And, hey, I'll admit it, I'm just as guilty as anyone else. I get the New York Times delivered to my house every morning (adorable, isn't it?) and consult a variety of websites that anyone would agree are at least center/left. While I'm currently in the process of migrating from MSNBC to CNN I would no more turn on Fox than jump out a window. (I watch TV on the first floor so that's mostly an empty threat.)
But how did we get here? I guess that's obvious, too. When I was a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1960s we had only a handful of channels on our black and white TV. (I remember our first color set which my dad bought in about 1968 -- you could watch the Game of the Week in color!) The channels were 2, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 32. (And you had to get up out of your chair to turn them! And wait for a commercial to go to the bathroom!) They were, in order, CBS, NBC, ABC, WGN (the local channel, for Cubs games and Three Stooges reruns), the "educational channel," which nobody watched, and the Sox channel, which was UHF and "snowy." So everyone would watch one of the three networks, which were essentially the same, for the national news at night. (But we never watched CBS; that Walter Cronkite was just too damned liberal!)
As for newpapers, there was the Republican Tribune (the paper of the establishment) which we got, of course, and a couple of other tabloids which must have been Democratic as I can't even remember the names of the Sun-Times's antecedents.
We also got Time magazine, not Newsweek, delivered each week, although I don't know if anyone in the house ever actually read it.
And that's about it. And I'm guessing we were not unusual in that respect. I'll bet most people in the pre-cable and pre-internet days got their news in a similar fashion. (There was also the radio for hourly updates, but nothing like Rush Limbaugh.)
So what happened? Well, I can remember quite clearly my parents and many other people complaining back then about the "liberal media." (This isn't a modern phenomenon.) As I said, we didn't watch CBS; besides Cronkite that smart-ass Dan Rather wasn't "nice to Nixon" in my mother's words. (Richard Nixon, by the way, was her all-time favorite -- by far. I think he was the Sarah Palin of his day, albeit a highly-intelligent version, and my mother identified with him and his many grievances with those smarty-pants, East Coast "elites.")
So when Roger Ailes came along to found Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves, and Matt Drudge showed up on the internet, there was a ready-made audience for a conservative alternative to the "liberal" media.
And the rest as they say is history.
But why was the mainstream media considered so liberal in the first place? Was it true? Was it fair? And I'm going to surprise you by saying, "yes." Why is that? And I'm going to say (and open myself up to charges of snobbery) that the members of the mainstream media are just plain smarter, better-educated and more open to new ideas than the average person. Also, while doctors, lawyers and businessmen are more motivated by money, the average reporter is more attracted to what they would consider an "interesting" career. So members of the media are, in effect, the intelligentsia, the vanguard, the cutting edge of society while the rest of us struggle to keep up. And who can blame us? We're busy with marriages, careers, kids, etc. and don't have time to be as well-informed as our brethren in the media. So, it's true, I think, that the media is more "liberal" than the population as a whole. It's their job, I suppose, to drag us kicking and screaming into the modern world while we bitch and moan that we would rather be left where we are (it's more comfortable). Make sense?
But the difference, I think, is that unlike Fox, etc. the mainstream, "liberal" media tries to be objective. They may be 60/40 liberal/conservative (or even 70/30, I don't know), but they try to be objective even though they know they have a liberal bias. They have a real devotion to the truth, telling the facts and informing the public. Even though the average reporter was probably "in the tank" for Adlai Stevenson, JFK, Clinton and Obama, they tried real hard not to let it affect their reporting.
Think of a referee in sports. Let's say he really likes (or hates) the coach of a particular team, or is secretly rooting for the underdog to knock off the favorite. Sure, they may "shade" their calls in subtle ways, but at the end of the day they want to call the game right. Unless he's got a bet on the game, the average ref wants to call it straight. After all, they pride themselves on being good refs, right?
And I think the "liberal" media is the same. Even though most of them probably voted for Stevenson, hated Nixon and were enchanted by Obama, they accepted the fact that the vast majority of Americans preferred Ike over the egghead, Nixon in 1968 and '72, and almost half for McCain and Romney, inexplicably, over "the One." And they at least tried to cover it "straight."
But the conservative media, I would maintain, has no pretensions to objectivity. Oh sure, Fox's slogan is "Fair and Balanced," but just watching it for a few minutes with my mother made that seem positively Orwellian. It's really a propaganda channel, not a news channel. Or the house organ of the Republican Party. Seriously.
So that's where we are and how we got that way. People choose their own news outlets and those outlets become more and more liberal or conservative in order to capture market share. (Although I would still argue that the "liberal" ones are more fact-based. But I would say that, wouldn't I?)
So how do we get out of this? I have no idea. Maybe America will resemble California more and more, in which Democrats have all but vanquished Republicans, but I doubt it. At least for the remainder of my life (thirty years or so?), I think we're stuck with this current polarization. I don't expect it to get a whole lot better; but how could it get a whole lot worse?