Now, unfortunately, most people in both camps consider people in the opposite camp as benighted at best, or as downright evil at worst.
A friend of mine and I were sputtering on about the problem of economic inequality, and he blamed it squarely on the Republicans, starting with the Reagan era. It’s true that our obscene economic inequality – in which 1% of the population owns nearly 50% of the nation’s wealth – began with the implementation of free-market economic theories during the Reagan administration. Once begun, though, the Democrats hopped right on the free-market band-wagon. The seeds of the Great Recession were sown in the Clinton administration, with its liberalization of banking and finance rules and its decision not to regulate derivatives.
I pointed out to my friend that for every politically conservative plutocrat there is a politically progressive one. Right-wing plutocrats may spend more of their money on politics, while left-wing plutocrats spend theirs fighting malaria in Africa or funding architecturally cutting-edge opera houses, but they all are happy and comfortable in their 1% global enclave and will oppose, or rather their lawyers and lobbyists will oppose, any measures that inhibit their accumulation of even more wealth.
My friend, who blames not only economic inequality, but just about everything wrong, stupid and dysfunctional in the country on the Republicans, is a typical politically engaged American. He watches MSNBC, reads The New York Times and visits progressive-congenial websites. Similarly, his equivalent, who watches Fox and reads The Wall Street Journal, blames everything on the Democrats.
When it comes to policy – health care, Syria, Guantanamo, Snowden, etc., etc. – with a few nuances, I am pretty much in agreement with the rest of my progressive friends. However, their demonization of Republican qua Republican makes me uncomfortable.
True, the Republican party in its current manifestation is almost comical in its kookiness and discombobulation. A number of factors have contributed to its shrill disarray, the rise of the Tea Party being the primary one. (I have my own deep feel-it-in-my-bones-but-impossible-to-prove sense that many conservatives – that is, those who believe that we should not let go of the past too quickly – are subconsciously hysterical because a black man is in the White House. The tenor of Republican exasperation with Obama is manic, incontinent – much different from the cold scorn with which the party attacked Bill Clinton.)
Putting aside the demonizationissimo of Obama, the Republicans demonize the rest of the Democratic party, just as the Democrats demonize them. Gone are the days of collegial Washington.
Here’s a question to which I don’t know the answer. If the Republicans and Democrats in Washington still were as collegial as they were fifty years ago, playing golf together, schmoozing over drinks, showing bi-partisan – supra-partisan – support when a big issue required it, would the news media still have devolved from being, or at least appearing to be, sources of objective reporting, to echo chambers for their viewers’ biases?
Come to think of it, there still are plenty of news organizations which do aim for strictly fact-based, objective reporting. CNN, for example, does not pander to either right or left; instead, its formula for attracting viewers is to treat every news event, from a celebrity pregnancy to a car bomb in Kabul, with the same urgency, reporting on it in a tone of voice – tense, but still bravely, professionally controlled – that should be reserved for tracking the path of a comet about to collide with the earth. PBS and BBC America also strive for objective reporting, although the extent to which I feel that they are in accord with my own position on most issues makes me think that there may be some justification in conservatives’ complaints about mainstream media leaning to the left.
I guess the answer to my question is that, if Washington were more collegial, Fox and MSNBC would not garner such high Nielsen ratings.
I have another cockamainy theory. While I agree with my friends and most pundits that the Republicans are far more responsible than the Democrats for the polarization which currently hamstrings our country, I blame the start of it on the Democrats. The first crack in the collegiality between the parties in Washington appeared in the Democrats’ frenzied torpedoing of the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
Bork was a respected jurist, a highly-regarded law professor, an intense student of the Constitution. He was A‑1 Supreme Court material. The Democrats’ problems with him were purely political.
Bork was extremely conservative. He was a profound originalist – although not a loopy one, like Scallia. Many of his positions were anathema to Democrats: he was against Roe v. Wade, he thought that the constitution allowed states to impose poll taxes and literacy tests; on the other hand, he approved of Brown vs. Board of Education (school desegregation) and denounced the “NRA view” of the Second Amendment, which he believed simply guaranteed the right to participate in a government militia. He also advocated a constitutional amendment, or modification, that would allow a super-majority of Congress to override a Supreme Court decision. (Not sure what I think of that idea.)
The Democrats’ attack on Bork was so unfair and vicious, so out of line, that “to bork” became a verb. “To bork” is defined by the OED as "to defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way." “Borking” predates “swift boating” by seventeen years.
Within an hour of the Bork nomination, Teddy Kennedy was on the Senate floor declaring “Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters,” etc. etc. Gregory Peck narrated anti-Bork TV ads. Bork’s video-rental history was scrutinized (although the Democrats failed to find the VCR that would be the equivalent of the credible hearsay evidence during the Clarence Thomas hearings that the nominee enjoyed watching pornographic movies, which in those days was considered more reprehensible than it is now that it’s something a guy might do while he’s waiting for his wife to dress for dinner).
I remember being shocked at the vilification of Bork, shocked that in the congenial, if not always decorous, halls of Congress, in the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice, which itself calls for a little more solemnity than much other partisan Congressional activity, such irrational, groundless, vituperative spleen could be vented on this quiet, reasonable, reflective, intelligent professor.
Yes, he had rather sharp opinions about certain constitutional questions that had been decided in the Democrats favor, had been decided progressively, instead of conservatively. The Democrats had a perfect right, during Bork’s nomination hearings, questioning those out-of-favor and out-of-fashion, curmudgeonly ideas. But to make Democratic opposition to a Supreme Court nomination into an inflammatory public issue, to turn his considered legal positions into negative soundbites, to make the excoriation of Bork into a political movement – that was a grave disservice to the democratic process.
The Republicans may be the bigger villains than the Democrats in Washington today. But it was in 1987 that the collegiality – meaning “despite our differing views we are colleagues on a joint project, namely government, and will maintain a working relationship” – began to crack, and that was the Democrats fault.
If I were an extreme conspiracy theorist instead of a moderate one, I might see political polarization as a conspiracy by the plutocrats to divert attention from their coup d’état. However, there is no doubt that political polarization benefits the moneyed power that has gained control of the government. While the Democrats and Republicans, locked in electoral battles, blame each other for economic woes and foreign policy debacles and get their constituents all riled up over enticingly prurient social issues like gay marriage and campus rape, lobbyists write the laws and craft the administrative rules for both parties.
Ask a Move On member, ask a Libertarian, ask a Christian fundamentalist, ask a militant atheist, ask a mainstream Democrat or Republican, even ask an NRA member or a member of a powerful union or a pharmaceutical researcher or an oil worker whether he or she thinks that big money controls Washington. You will get unanimous agreement. All America knows it. You would find a large consensus that this is the most important issue confronting the country.
Then why are we so helpless? Why did Occupy Wall Street fizzle out? Why do we allow ourselves to be sidetracked by partisan issues, when there is bi-partisan consensus that the government has been usurped by the billionaires?
The answer, of course, is not simple. The reasons for this political failure, this political paralysis, are woven into the zeitgeist: our pleasures, narcissistic and infantile, our fears of illness, of terrorism, of pedophiles, of peer disapproval, our aspirations, which define success in terms of money or celebrity, our role models, who are the very people who oppress us, the conversion of education into consumer-training, the denigration of Western culture by the few who still are aware that it exists, the media, the internet, the constant blathering harangue, audible everywhere, visible everywhere, the utter confusion as to what constitutes reality.
The only eventual resolution I can imagine for this social mess, the only way all these frightened, confused and irresolute individuals can be brought together again into a cohesive body, is by the force of a single charismatic personality.
It’s a frightening thought. I hope I am wrong. Maybe it will just all work itself out.