When Vice President Joe Biden went to Florida October 14 to speak on behalf of newly minted Democrat Charlie Crist in his race against his former party’s big spending governor Rick Scott, a Nov. 4 race that polls put neck and neck, he didn’t engage in plagiarism (as he was accused of in the distant past). But he pushed to center stage an insider observation that every day has a greater sting of truth.
|Biden (left) stumps for Crist|
American politics have had vindictive if trivial eruptions on and off for more than two centuries, but today it is relentless ugly, a reality sinking in on voters tired of the noise. It is compounded by many factors of modern society beyond the inevitable difference of eras and demographic shifts. But whatever advantages we can point to in diversity and escape from Puritan excesses, there have also been some profound losses in the tone and prestige of our democracy.
It’ s understandable that many Republicans are not quite ready to leap over the fence to the Democratic side, but even in community meetings and neighborhood parties in Waukesha County (the suburban bane of many Democrats) the traditionalist supporters are profoundly disturbed in the choice of GOP talking heads dominating the cable news channels. (It’s a whole other column why the same quotable dummies dominate the airwaves and radio – or actually sit in the host chair.)
Some other Republicans are knee-jerk in defending their candidates right or wrong (which some Democrats are also guilty of) as if R and D were deadly rivals on the football field and changing colors would be a violation of rah-rah. But many steadfast sure-fire voters of the recent past are hitting the pause button, weighing the rhetoric and the consequences. They are mainly interested in family and security, not in political maneuvers, so they, as many Democrats do on their side, just accepted the sound-bites and talking points without question. Once they start questioning, though, anecdotal evidence and comments are bubbling out even in firmly GOP neighborhoods.
They have children and aging parents, after all, and even grandchildren attending public schools, and they have to fill the ballot ovals with some sense of moral conscience, which means looking closer at the issues and what truly fits with their convictions – and eyesight.
Whether such doubts will affect their votes we won’t know until Nov. 4.
But unquestionably, just as the Democrats have their own unity problems, there is growing dislike at the assumption that the GOP vote is diehard secure and greater dislike over what this breed of GOP sound-biters has come to represent – petty sniping, obstinate of opinion, refusing to cooperate, holding private meetings to oppose anything that smells of Obama even if in the past they agreed with the idea or even proposed it, dismissive of feminine hormones and relishing the posturing of political testosterone. Perhaps you will argue that this is only extremist behavior and the worried voters will come back home to the Grand Old Party in the end. But even news outlets on their side have made derision and extremism commonplace – and you’d be surprised by how many Republicans don’t like it.
Putting aside glee and hope that change is at hand in Wisconsin, long-term Democrats have also been taken aback by this lack of manners and comity in discussion, recalling the many decent Republican families they knew and still know. When I talk to Democrats in the state Assembly and Senate, their first reaction is sadness. Anger and frustration come second.
Gridlock has infected the universal brain. The loss of logical analysis has engendered blind support and even admiration for those who show backbone for even proven lousy ideas (yes I am thinking of Wisconsin’s inept administrator in the governor’s mansion and of Brownback in Kansas, but I am also wondering about those Democrats so angry over Scott Walker’s disembowelment of unions that Mary Burke’s refusal to send all of Act 10 permanently to hell has made them reluctant allies, though her moderated approach echoes much of the thinking of today’s union leaders).
Why have we let partisans elevate ignorance and absolutism into some sort of Holy Grail of ideology? Why have we let extremists and ignorant nostrums dominate our debates?
This column is not another too easy attack on Walker and the well-heeled Republican machinery. It’s more intended to explore what has happened to America on both sides. It’s time to examine the depth of our failure and how the media has become intertwined with the new technology and the dismaying effect of secret big money, which brings ethically questionable lawyerly evasion and corporate lobbying to unseemly prominence in controlling our thinking.
This has created a new texture for America that can’t be compared to the strident political editorials and cartoons of the 19th century. It is all intrinsically linked with social changes – our unreasonable expectations of instant gratification combined with multiple escapist choices that make the public bound to marketing techniques and brisk tech distractions from life, which has carried over into how we contemplate the complicated issues of today. Right, left and middle, the noise of simpletons it too loud to ignore.
The public is devoted to a 24/7 news cycle that no government can satisfy, to facades of “people think” created by Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or whatever digital device you “like” to reinforce your existing friendships and frequently your half-baked attitudes. Digital escape has become the poor man’s version of banquets and other expensive favoritism by those rich enough to cuddle up to leaders and whisper into their ears while the rest of us are hoping the leaders will at least read the media feeds on their smart phones.
Our brave new world allows oligarchic wealth an outsized influential role over our mailboxes, phone polling and TV sets – and these forces have found willing vassals in the media dependent on those advertising dollars and corporate reach. For the sake of ratings or eyeballs, newspapers, cable news channels, radio talk and web portals are elevating fear not just over Ebola and Isis but over the important instruments of government from tax collecting, disease research, environment protection, sensible regulation of business and other things a democracy once prided itself on. This isn’t a right or left observation, really, except that the left is prone to more optimism about the arc upwards of justice and the right seems more susceptible right now to panic attacks and clinging to the status quo.
All these factors equalize in the public mind events that aren’t equal. But they are made equal in media time spent on them. If important revelations occur, if thinkers raise vital criticism of policies against those struggling to stay in office, all are rapidly diminished in a blitz of attack ads or by exaggerating a minor language blip or poor political choice into dismissal of a candidate who is making sense on the big picture.
There are many examples. Let’s take Kentucky. Probably in an effort not to associate herself too closely to Obama, who lost Kentucky in 2012 by 22 points, Alison Lundergan Grimes made a blunder though recent polls show her either breathing down Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s neck or slightly ahead of him.
|Grimes goofs but McConnell dissembles more in|
Politics, of course. She has Bill and Hillary Clinton campaigning for her and is deliberately conjuring up how much influence she is likely to bring Kentucky in 2016, pointedly calling herself a “Clinton Democrat.” (And who do YOU think will be the next president?) She also knows the political consultants for Mitch are poised to pounce on any sound-bite mentioning Obama favorably.
Despite such justifications this was a mistake unworthy of an appealing candidate who has made inroads with a Joan of Arc image of taking on the power structure on both sides. But it was nowhere near the level of evasive insult to the electorate and hypocrisy of Mitch.
In debates and stump speeches McConnell is not called out in equal manner yet he says such sillies as he will “tear Obamacare out root and branch” yet he is fine with Kentucky Kynect -- which is the root of Obamacare in his state and highly successful and beloved to boot! That was damaging nonsense as is his denial of mankind’s involvement in climate change by saying “I am not a scientist.” The mind reels – and only recently have some journalists spoken out.
Mitch’s climate change denial is outright fabrication quite similar to statements (the party line, I presume) by Joni Ernst, the Iowa castration queen running for Senate, or Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan who goes further, not only saying “I’m not a scientist” but suggesting that “even scientists don’t agree.” It is an extremely deceptive statement by a man Obama once foolishly called one of the smarter Republicans and it provided a debate success for his opponent Ron Zerban, running an uphill race thanks to GOP gerrymandering.
Now Ryan knows full well that 98% of scientists agree that man has a devastating influence on the climate and they expect Congress to decide among many options of how to address this genuine problem. For members of Congress to express doubt or ignorance signals lack of action -- a cowardice that spells disaster for the world’s future. It is another stance that is raising doubts in longtime Republican voters.
But as in the Mitch case, the national media hasn’t jumped all over such evasions as idiotic – perhaps because direct attacks on the big lie might offend the powers behind the ads paying their salaries.
Or is it all about spiking the ratings? Clearly the reluctance of a Democratic candidate to support the president will get readership and viewership while Mitch denying that Kentucky Kynect is the heart of his state's Obamacare is a bigger evasion with a more frightening impact from a big stick in the GOP. But if you’re Chuck Todd and your MSNBC ratings are swooning, you punch up Grimes and skip around Mitch – until other journalists call you on it and you are forced to admit that McConnell is more deeply disqualified for public office.
|Mary Burke during first debate.|
When he said Wisconsin “doesn’t have a job problem, we have a work problem,” he demeaned a million hard working low-income workers or job hunters hoping for action from a governor who failed to deliver the 250,000 new jobs he promised. (There is no question those boners helped Burke win their first debate and will draw more desperate attacks by his side, probably reaching back in time to her tenure under Jim Doyle – but that’s the painful politics of today.)
Consider how minor and common was Burke’s error yet what hard play it got from the media – a paid consultant quoted himself verbatim with jobs ideas from other states he suggested for her jobs program, but he didn’t change a word. That got him promptly fired and Burke accused of plagiarism, though candidates borrow ideas from each other all the time – in this case good ones, in Walker’s case clones from ALEC or from policies that have failed here. Yet the reporters gave the Burke issue more space than what Walker said, forcing the voters to dig out the balance the media failed to deliver.
Across the county similar examples of disparate coverage abound. So my complaint is simple. Journalists should be a bulwark against this leap toward instant gratification and obviously false statements. But when Politifacts flails around more than Tilt-o-Whirl, when news interviewers fail to pin the big lie or follow up with the vital question, journalism becomes just another transient pastime in a world filled with escapist opportunities.
Reporters electronic and print should scoff at a political dodge but bury with invective sheer hypocrisy, which is far more damaging to America in the long run. That would satisfy both their “gotcha” eureka for ratings and the public’s need to separate a small sin from a major one.