Obama Facepalm
Credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

In order for Fox News to be successful, they had to convince potential viewers that the mainstream press was liberal. That led to a whole cottage industry of right wing media that thrives today because conservatives bought the premise. Eventually liberals needed to create their own counterweight to combat the lies and spin emanating from these sources and now, never the twain shall meet. A lot of Americans live in a world created by one side or the other. Our news is polarized.

When President Obama embraced a plan for health care reform that was originally proposed by the Heritage Foundation and signed into law in Massachusetts by a Republican governor, conservatives labelled it as a partisan move to shove socialized medicine down out throats. As a result, not one Republican in Congress voted for Obamacare and now they claim that it is because the President politicized the process and failed to find common ground with them.

We all watched as the Bush administration tried to politicize the DOJ by getting rid of federal prosecutors who didn’t toe their partisan line and inserted political operatives into the hiring process – especially at the Civil Rights Division. When AG Eric Holder worked on cleaning up that mess, Republicans accused him of partisanship in an attempt to politicize the Justice Department.

Over these last few years, we’ve even seen conservatives politicize science and math.

I’ve been thinking about all of that as we watch what is happening in the FBI these days. As I noted yesterday, here is what Spencer Ackerman is reporting:

Current and former FBI officials, none of whom were willing or cleared to speak on the record, have described a chaotic internal climate that resulted from outrage over director James Comey’s July decision not to recommend an indictment over Clinton’s maintenance of a private email server on which classified information transited.

“The FBI is Trumpland,” said one current agent.

I imagine that when/if the Obama administration moves to clean up that mess, there will be howls of “partisanship” heard across the land.

The goal of all of this is to ensure that we never find any common ground and that everything becomes a “he said/she said” – which much our media buys in to with their both-sider-ism.

It was Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein who broke through all of that with their assertion that what we are seeing is “asymmetrical polarization.” Here is Ornstein writing about why that matters:

If bad behavior—using the nation’s full faith and credit as a hostage to political demands, shutting down the government, attempting to undermine policies that have been lawfully enacted, blocking nominees not on the basis of their qualifications but to nullify the policies they would pursue, using filibusters as weapons of mass obstruction—is to be discouraged or abandoned, those who engage in it have to be held accountable. Saying both sides are equally responsible, insisting on equivalence as the mantra of mainstream journalism, leaves the average voter at sea, unable to identify and vote against those perpetrating the problem. The public is left with a deeper disdain for all politics and all politicians, and voters become more receptive to demagogues and those whose main qualification for office is that they have never served, won’t compromise, and see everything in stark black-and-white terms.

The response of some liberals to this situation is to simply do the same thing. In a way, that is what President Obama ultimately decided to do by accomplishing what he could via executive order once all avenues of finding common ground via legislation were blocked. For someone who has staked his entire career on extolling the virtues of our democratic processes that require elected officials to come together and compromise, that was probably a difficult decision. But he is also a pragmatist who recognizes the Niebuhrian notion that we have to live in the world as it is – not as we want it to be.

But it behooves us all to keep in mind that when we give up the attempt to find common ground – even when that decision is warranted – we do as Ornstein suggests and leave “the average voter at sea, unable to identify and vote against those perpetrating the problem.” To the extent that their response is cynicism, that leads to “a deep disdain for all politics and all politicians.” As Mike Lofgren explained several years ago, that is exactly what Republicans are hoping for.

There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

To the extent that liberals believe in government as a force for good, it is imperative to keep in mind that the end goal here is to do what is necessary to uphold the democratic processes that were put in place to govern this diverse country. That means continuing to aspire to the better politics described by President Obama.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives…

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.