That's Entertainment: Hyperpartisanship and Politics as Theater
As the 2008 campaign begins in earnest, one of the emerging storylines is so-called hyperpartisanship, the bitter and increasingly divisive conflict between Democrats and Republicans that is said to be fueling cynicism - and apathy - among voters. In Iowa, Barack Obama proclaims that he will transcend partisan cleavages, while John Edwards vows to fight. Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will meet in Oklahoma next week with prominent figures from both parties to encourage the 2008 candidates to form a "government of national unity." But lost in the cries of hyperpartisanship is the undeniable fact the Republican Party is almost exclusively responsible for it, aided and abetted by an "infotainment" media that has transformed politics into theater.
As the Washington Post first reported this morning, Bloomberg is hosting the January session with the intent of prodding the leading Democratic and Republican White House hopefuls to curb their partisan venom or potentially face the prospect of an independent, third party bid:
Conveners of the meeting include such prominent Democrats as former senators Sam Nunn (Ga.), Charles S. Robb (Va.) and David L. Boren (Okla.), and former presidential candidate Gary Hart. Republican organizers include Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), former party chairman Bill Brock, former senator John Danforth (Mo.) and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman.
Boren, who will host the meeting at the university, where he is president, said: "It is not a gathering to urge any one person to run for president or to say there necessarily ought to be an independent option. But if we don't see a refocusing of the campaign on a bipartisan approach, I would feel I would want to encourage an independent candidacy."
Unfortunately, well-meaning politicians and pundits alike are dangerously mistaken both when diagnosing the cause of the disease of political polarization and its cure. While Newsweek's Evan Thomas decries "the closing of the American mind" and the Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein abhors the "Second Civil War" (where denizens of DailyKos conduct a "a scorched-earth opposition to the GOP"), the Republican Party happily continues its strategy of "divide, suppress and conquer" it pioneered in the 1960's and perfected under Karl Rove. Just as important, the success of that GOP strategy would not have been possible without the advent of the 24/7 infotainment media complex where politics, news and opinion merge into just another form of entertainment. The route of hyperpartisanship is a one-way street where all signs point to the right.
Divide, Suppress and Conquer
Today's politics of polarization has its roots in the 1960's transformation of the Republican Party into a bastion of exclusion and divisiveness. The Civil Rights movement and to a lesser degree Vietnam fueled Kevin Phillip's "Southern Strategy" that drove Richard Nixon and subsequent Republican leaders. While GOP water-carriers like Bruce Bartlett are quick to point out that Southern Democrats "regularly defended segregation and white supremacy throughout most of the 20th century," they ignore the warm welcome they found in the Republican Party after the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the 1960's.
President Lyndon Johnson, who signed those acts into law, presciently predicted, "There goes the South for a generation." Make that two; even as savvy a politician as Johnson severely underestimated the devastation Democrats' support for civil rights would produce among white voters in the South.
As Thomas Frank and others have noted, the eras of Ronald Reagan and Karl Rove completed the devolution of the GOP into the Party of Hate. Advocating retrograde economic policies and other prescriptions consistently opposed by a majority of Americans, the Republican Party aided by the increasingly subservient religious right instead converted political debates into morality plays about good and evil. (The Republicans' drive to impeach Bill Clinton, an inquisition overwhelmingly opposed by most Americans, makes little sense outside this context.) For the GOP, as Lakoff and Frank suggest, potential opponents can be swayed to abandon their self-interest and become allies in the culture wars against those the GOP claims they should fear: African-Americans, gay Americans, immigrants and, of course, Muslims.
That has been the hallmark of Republican politics in the Age of Rove. In their grim electoral calculus, Republicans only care about the "half of the half" that actually vote. That's where the GOP's 25% Solution comes in.
The Republican strategy of "Divide, Suppress and Conquer" is simple. First, fire up the base with red meat issues such as abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage, while using the proven conservative "distribution" channel of churches and single issue advocacy groups to get them to the polls. Second, drive down the participation of potential Democratic and independent voters through curbs on registration, unprecedented redistricting, onerous new ID requirements, and brazen polling place eligibility challenges. (Last but certainly not least for the Republican party of Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, when in doubt, just cheat.)
Despite American's overwhelming preference for Democratic positions virtually across the board, Republicans enjoyed victories in 2000, 2002 and 2004 thanks to divide, suppress and conquer. If not for the scope of the Iraq disaster plus the Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley scandals, the GOP might have retained its hold on Congress in 2006.
Unprecedented GOP Obstructionism
Still, the Republican politics of polarization continued even after Tom Delay's 2006 farewell battle cry that hyperpartisanship "is not a symptom of democracy's weakness but of its health and its strength." With the Democrats now in control of Congress, Republican partisan warfare just took a new form.
While President Bush promised to stay "relevant" with vetoes and recess appointments, the Congressional GOP waged a historically unprecedented campaign of obstructionism to deny the majority Democrats any legislative wins and thus brand theirs a "do nothing Congess.". The GOP's omnispresent talking point of "Up or Down Vote" magically disappeared after November 2006. As Robert Borosage detailed in July, while Democrats in the House kept their promise to pass a raft of legislation including Medicare drug negotiation, the minimum wage, student loan reform and more, Republicans in the Senate stymied overwhelmingly popular bills at every turn:
"Bills with majority support -- raising the minimum wage, ethics reform, a date to remove troops from Iraq, revoking oil subsidies and putting the money into renewable energy, fulfilling the 9/11 commission recommendations on homeland security--get blocked because they can't garner 60 votes to overcome a filibuster."
Former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS) was one of the essential architects of the filibuster fever in the Grand Obstruction Party. While decrying that "the Senate is spiraling into the ground to a degree that I have never seen before" and "all modicum of courtesy is going out the window," Lott was also brutally frank about his strategy to prevent any Democratic wins come hell or high water:
"The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. So far it's working for us."
An analysis by McClatchy showed that by July Republicans have already resorted to the filibuster 42 times and on track to block Senate action over 150 times this term, shattering the previous record by almost a factor of three. By December 18th, as the Campaign for America's Future detailed, the GOP easily set the record in just the first year of the 110th Congress:
"62 times conservatives have used the filibuster to block legislation (or force modification of bills) in the first session of the 110th Congress. In just the first year of this two-year Congress, their use of the filibuster in the Senate topped the previous record, reached during the entire 107th Congress."
Politics as Theater
But the undeniable success of the Republican politics of polarization over the past generation would not have been possible without the concomitant transformation of the American media environment.
In a nutshell, American politics must now compete with an oversupply of other entertainment and information sources, from television, radio, books, newspapers and magazines to web sites, online video, Podcasts and more. As I noted in my May 2007 discussion of Al Gore's book The Assault on Reason, in highlighting the peril of the "well-amused audience" that is now the U.S. electorate, Gore may have significantly understated the transformation of American politics. The trends he cites have fundamentally mutated "politics as discourse and debate" into "politics as theater and entertainment."
The result is a 21st century "infotainment complex" where politics, news, opinion and entertainment are virtually indistinguishable. Thus, there is no journalistic search for objective truth. Instead, all controversies are presented as ideological clashes featuring morality plays with two - and only two - sides. In that format, the "best" entertainers are the loudest, most aggressive and most theatrical. As I wrote in a 2005 review of George Lakoff''s Don't Think Like an Elephant, that gives conservative themes and messages a huge built-in advantage:
Politics is now entertainment, part drama and part competition in a passion play where confrontation, conflict, and good versus evil rule the day. In a time of great uncertainty at home and abroad, for overworked Americans awash in sea of information, visceral appeals and gut-level emotions, not data, facts and analysis, cut through the noise.
And that gives the conservative message machine a significant, built-in advantage over liberals. Lakoff's "strict father" model for conservatives is tailor-made for the infotainment media of the 21st century. In this environment, confrontation, indignation, morality plays, good guys and axes of evil naturally dominate political debate, just as they do in Hollywood blockbusters. The initial progress of the liberal Air America Radio notwithstanding, the fury and self-righteousness of Fox News, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Hannity and Coulter makes for much better theater than "nurturers" like Bill Moyers. Conservatives rage, liberals whine. And rage is much more entertaining.
The resulting damage to American politics and public policy is clear. The United States blindly rushed to war in Iraq, virtually without debate and without opposition. As an October 2003 PIPA survey showed, even after the invasion of Iraq, majorities of Americans continued to believe Bush administration claims about Saddam (Iraq role in 9/11, an alliance between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and Saddam's WMD) all long since proven false. (Unsurprisingly, viewers of Fox News were the most delusional.) As late as July 2006, fully 50% of Americans still believed the discredited claim that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. And as Gore well knows from his experience evangelizing action to curb global warming, the right has been very successful in creating the ephemera of "scientific uncertainty" through the propagation and promotion of hucksterism packaged as legitimate dissent. (For more on the time-tested conservative tactic of undermining reasoned public policy through the creation of uncertainty, see The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney.)
In his excellent book A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, Glenn Greenwald described the sadly successful but tremendously damaging Manichean politics of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. But even Greenwald underestimates the degree to which a servile press let the Bush administration demonize political opponents and march the United States to war under false pretenses. The American media, especially the cable news outlets, didn't simply fail their test as journalists after 9/11. Much worse, they perpetuated the seismic shift of politics to the realm of entertainment and theater. And in that universe, George W. Bush and the GOP offered the equivalent of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. The Republicans simply had the best show going.
The American yearning for national reconciliation, "middle ground" and "third ways" is understandable. Barack Obama's appeal to transcend partisan politics and embrace hope is no doubt a powerful one. But unfortunately, in this environment the way forward is not compromise and conciliation - at least not yet. The claims of Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Susan Collins (R-ME) notwithstanding, there is no longer any such thing as a "moderate Republican." (And there certainly is no GOP equivalent of the "Blue Dog" Democrats.)
Now is not the time to make nice. Democrats must first win convincingly, capture the White House and Congress, and protect the Supreme Court, all before changing the tactics and tone of politics. Reaching out to the other side, enacting need electoral reforms and finding consensus is something Democrats can only do from a position of strength. After all, that philosophy has no place in the Republican Party of Karl Rove.
As the saying goes, you don't bring a knife to a gunfight. And to misappropriate another old saw, there's no substitute for victory.