If last year’s health care debate and the rise of the Tea Party movement have shown anything, it’s that the 2008 election was not the messianic defeat of conservatism that many on the Left hoped it would be.
The Left saw itself as putting firmly to an end the abuses of the Bush era, the capstone of the rise to power that started with the 2006 takeback of Congress. I felt, and I suspect many on the Left did as well, that with Obama in power and a Democratic Congress, the “progressive” agenda could be pushed forward, and if it worked, it would kill the Republican party for a generation. Obama received one of the largest electoral vote wins in history; Democrats won a nearly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The people had given the Democrats a mandate to pursue their agenda however they saw fit, and had firmly repudiated the conservatism of George W. Bush.
It did not work out that way. The Democrats received pushback. Obama struggled mightily to get anything at all passed; the country remained mired in the recession; and far from being killed, Republicans started beating the Democrats at what used to be their own game, marching and demonstrating. Now Republicans look likely to win seats, if not control, in both houses, and many on the left claim that this happened because the Obama administration wasn’t leftist enough. One wonders if the best thing for the Democrats would be to lose the White House and be marginalized almost to the point of irrelevance in Congress to force the Democrats back to their base and their own Tea Party-style movement.
What actually happened was that the Democrats put too much stake in politics. They felt that if they just elected enough of the right politicians they’d bring a “progressive” heaven on earth. We just needed to defeat the moneyed corporate forces trying to destroy our future. But there are actual conservatives out there, actual people listening to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and they aren’t just misled by misinformation being spread by Big Corporations. The Left has claimed that the Tea Party is nothing but a big astroturf movement by moneyed interests, but at this point it’s difficult to see that as anything more than a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. After all, it’s taken aim at fellow Republicans, defeated GOP favorites in the primary, and made the claim that they lost in 2008 because they’re not rightist enough. The final Democratic triumph won’t occur until it sees the conservatives beyond the corporate boardrooms and recognizes their grievances and the forces behind them. At the same time, the Republicans need to realize that there are real Democrats out there, and they aren’t all misled by the liberal media – both sides need to realize that neither side is dominated by lunatics. After all, many of them have taken to the blogs in much the same way Republicans took to talk radio 20 years ago, and one of their complaints is that the media is if anything conservative!
And ultimately, the media is at the heart of all of this, accused of liberal bias on one side and conservative pandering on the other. I once tried to read both Media Matters for America and Newsbusters and came away with the idea that the media is just plain incompetent. Sure, everyone – including journalists – has an opinion, but why can’t the media simply report the facts as they are? Why can’t the mainstream media simply report all the relevant facts and leave them up to the reader’s interpretation, the way Fox News’ slogan claims – give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? After years of being pilloried by left and right, how could the mainstream media still be biased?
The short answer is that your definition of “truth” is dependent on where on the political spectrum you lie. There will always be another fact you could have added, another study you ignored, and then some of the facts and studies you did cite may be misleading and just plain inaccurate. Every “fact check” you perform is showing bias in favor of the side you come out on. And then if you try “investigative reporting”, even in the past you had to choose where to send your resources, and then you’re effectively choosing entire stories that could show a liberal or conservative bias. And then on the flip side are those potential stories left behind, and no matter how radical or ridiculous the story sounds, if you refrain to report it it will ironically give the story more credibility than if you had reported it: “See, the mainstream media is covering up this story!” This is how we got 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers. The mainstream media could do a better job of bringing up these fringe theories the moment they come up and decisively squashing them, laying out all the evidence, but then one side will say you’re “legitimizing” the fringe theory (the fear that has been the mainstream media’s problem in the past), while the other will say you’re showing bias by presenting the “opinion” that the theory is wrong “uncritically”, which proves the first side right by legitimizing the theory.
And so the media can’t win. And in a landscape where the media can’t win, the winners are those places that are telling them the media is wrong in the first place. If you can’t trust the media, you can trust the partisan echo chambers known as talk radio, blogs, Fox News and MSNBC. Each political persuasion now has their own media, independent from each other and from the mainstream media. It is now possible to cocoon yourself and only expose yourself to those media that present a viewpoint that meshes with your own, that tell you how obvious it is that you’re right, how those big bad people on the other side want to ruin everything, and how the media are hiding the truth and coddling them. Party politics in this country is taking on almost religious connotations, with many of the same aspects of worldview, explanation, and reassurance – and it may be becoming literal, if Glenn Beck is any indication. (It would help if there were more than two political parties, but as Ralph Nader has proved, that’s difficult to accomplish as is, and the status quo arguably reflects one of the oldest divisions in the country, North and South, and maybe one of the oldest in the world, haves and have-nots.)
It becomes a vicious cycle: The partisan machine says mainstream media is biased, so you need to get your news from partisan sources, and that feeds the partisan machine. And the end result is that we now have two factions that are increasingly not speaking to each other – indeed, they increasingly can’t even understand each other. How can they? Admitting the other side might be right about something is a win for them. If they so much as claim that the risks of your position aren’t worth the benefits, you need to raise the stakes, ramp up the risks of their position, lest your followers potentially give in to the enemy. So every issue becomes an apocalyptic battle for the future of America. (On the plus side, no one now plausibly says there’s no difference between the parties.)
And not only are the mainstream media throwing up their hands and giving up on resolving the divide, they’re profiting on it and making it deeper. Complaining about the divide fills up time on political talk shows, but very little is done to do anything about it. CNN profited off the divide for a time by hosting Lou Dobbs’ rhetoric; MSNBC, where Keith Olbermann was once an anomaly, has now decided to plunge headfirst into becoming the liberal equivalent to Fox News, virtually matching if not exceeding Fox note-for-note in pundits with talk shows. Nowhere is there any serious effort in any of the three camps to bring the warring parties back together, to expose them to the other side’s views both on politics and the truth and give a reality check, to start a real conversation on common ground.
CNN tries to be nonpartisan. I think it would be better for the political discourse if it were bipartisan. I actually didn’t like it when Jon Stewart went on Crossfire, lambasted it, and led to its demise – that was one of the few places where left and right could come together and have their respective ideologies meet. In my view, the failure of CNN to see the true character of the political discourse in this country is reflected in its attempt to revive that format, Parker Spitzer. I saw an episode last week and saw a show where the hosts’ differing political ideologies seemed like a coincidence. It was a genteel setting where the hosts mainly engaged in roundtable discussions of high-level issues. There was very little effort to play left and right against each other, or even to represent them. Even in the opening segment, where each of the hosts presented their “opening arguments”, they basically agreed with each other that Obama needed to defend himself better. It’s like the show is living in a completely different universe than the rest of the political discourse, and not in a good way.
Defending the show to Richard Viguerie, who had expressed how unconvinced he was as a conservative about the show’s goals, Eliot Spitzer claimed that CNN was interested in fairness and balance, but it was also interested in the truth. That, to me, is the failing of the show. For many, Obama being born in Kenya or 9/11 being an inside job is the truth. If CNN really wants to correct the political discourse in this country, it needs to dwell on the fringes. I don’t want to see a debate between Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer; I want to see a debate between Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, Sarah Palin and Al Sharpton, Michelle Malkin and Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh and Markos Moulitsas. And I don’t want it to be a cable version of Charlie Rose, I want it to be a political version of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. I once brought up this issue in a class and was told that, precisely because of the religious fervor and diverging worldviews of each side, it could lead to nothing but the sort of shouting matches that Stewart criticized Crossfire for – neither side would really get anywhere because they wouldn’t be arguing from common premises and couldn’t argue to the other side’s values, so they’d just go around in circles repeating themselves.
I don’t believe that’s the case, and I know that because I myself have found myself agreeing with or at least understanding conservative positions online, despite my own liberal leanings. In fact, while most people seemingly believe whatever they encounter first, I find myself agreeing with whatever I read last. I’ve found myself getting very self-conscious about my own liberal leanings when I read something from a conservative point of view, and worrying about whether or not I really am ruining America. Unfortunately, people like me seem to be few and far between, and they’re getting fewer and farther between. In reality, I suspect they make up the majority of Americans, but most of them just don’t hold strong positions, don’t feel strongly enough to speak about it, and are turned off by the shouting that goes on by the people who feel strongly enough to speak up. And I’m not terribly optimistic about the potential for Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity to bring them out of the woodwork. (Especially when whatever serious message may lie behind the comedy is undermined by the parallel “March to Keep Fear Alive”, and especially when several in the media paint it as a “progressive” response to Glenn Beck’s rally, taking part in the breakdown of the political discourse instead of trying to fix it.)
Unlike a lot of people, I don’t believe we’re becoming a nation of two colors, red and blue, with completely different cultures that can’t understand each other. I certainly hope that’s not where we’re going, or it could lead to another civil war. However, we could get there if the current political discourse is left unchecked, so I’m using my understanding of both sides to force an intervention, one more substantial than the Rally to Restore Sanity. Over the next few days I will attempt to explain the basic credo of both left and right – but the political discourse has fallen far enough that I don’t believe it’s sufficient to merely explain but also to defend, and it’s not sufficient to defend, but also to actively attempt to persuade. I will attempt to promote the political ideology of the left in an appeal to conservatives, and attempt to promote the political ideology of the right in an appeal to liberals.
I’m going to lay my biases up front: As someone with liberal leanings, I am more likely to do the left justice than the right, and I am more likely to show a comprehensive understanding of liberal values than conservative ones. Note also that in order to properly appeal to each side, I would need to follow up on things said while defending that side – to argue one side to the other, I’d need to appeal to the other side’s values, which I would have established while defending that side – so things may seem a little disjointed. I’ll then attempt to find some sort of common ground between them, to the extent there is any, and use this framework to look at various issues in the political discourse.