Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Media and the Polarization of America

We have become so accustomed to the extreme polarization of our country that began in earnest during Clinton’s second term and has gone off the deep end during the past few years with the creation and ascendency of the Republican Tea Party movement, that it’s hard to remember that there was a time not that long ago when things were very different.  But they were,

After Lyndon Johnson fought for and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the deep south turned Republican, the red states were (with the exception of the 1964 Goldwater debacle) pretty reliably the deep south, the plains states, the Rocky Mountain states, and the west coast.  The Republicans expanded their take of states in Nixon’s elections, Reagan’s, and Bush I’s.  In 1988 they did lose Washington and Oregon, and in 1992 they lost California, which have since been permanently in the Democratic camp.  But after Clinton, they seem to have permanently gained the lower Midwest (Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana).  Likewise the blue states have been pretty consistent, with the exceptions noted above.

So we have existed for the past 48 years at least with a large number of states reliably red, a large number reliably blue, a few changing from one to the other, and a few being the swing states, which is to say they have no established pattern.  But despite that fact, there were circumstances or candidates ... like Goldwater in 1964, McGovern in 1972, the Iran Hostage crisis in 1980, and Reagan in 1984 that turned the presidential map almost totally blue or totally red.

We were in other words a country with a distinctive political map which nevertheless responded to events or personalities in a way contrary to that pattern.  People were far more flexible.

This flexibility could also be clearly seen in the workings of the party’s representatives in Congress.  Although Republicans and Democrats have always disagreed on many things, acrimony was not common.  More common was a tone of civility and frequently “crossing the aisle” to work together in the country’s best interest.  The vast majority of legislators were centrists, as was the electorate.

So what happened to turn our country from a nation of partisans who nevertheless could be bipartisan in the interest of the country and who could, as lawyers say, “agree to disagree,” to a country where one party ... the Republican ... has become a hotbed of rabid, radical, ideological partisans who will brook no compromise?  The answer I think is to be found in the evolution of media in the United States.

Prior to 1980, people got their news from the three major TV networks, all of which were mainstream and centrist, and newspapers which were for the most part also mainstream and centrist.  Whether it was Huntley-Brinkley or Water Cronkite, these were the men who formed public opinion about current events.  Whether you lived in a major urban area or in an isolated rural one, they were your eyes to the rest of the world.  And the respect with which they were held impacted how people, whether Republican or Democrat, saw the major issues of the day.  Even after 1980 when CNN was founded and programmed news 24 hours a day, the basic pattern of centrist news organizations continued.  The result was that people were in general more centrist in their outlook.

Radio was also pretty much a centrist medium prior to 1987, when the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which had required controversial viewpoints to be balanced by opposing opinion on air.  One year after that, Rush Limbaugh started his nationally syndicated show on ABC.  Many other right-wing personalities followed suit.

Then in 1996 Fox News started its cable broadcast.  Now you had right-wing news interpretation available 24 hours a day.  That together with the large panoply of right-wing radio talk shows available nationally ... they’re called “conservative talk” but they hardly fit the classic definition of “conservative” ... means that Republicans throughout the country, whether living in small rural towns or in urban areas, now can choose to get their news and their opinions from Republican [sic radical] conservatives, rather than from mainstream broadcasters in the mold of Concrete and Huntley-Brinkley or Brokaw.

This shift in the nature or function of media is, I believe, the single most important factor in the rise of extreme partisanship on the right and our nation’s current polarized state, even more than the rise of the Religious Right during this same period.  People who may have had such opinions before didn’t have them validated by national media.  Now they are emboldened and feel they are in the vanguard.  And those who didn’t have such thoughts have now been brainwashed by the constant barrage of right-wing commentary and have become right-wing radicals.

Add another notch to the belt of the deregulators.