Donald Trump at a Fox News town hall
Credit: The White House/Flickr

There was a time when the fault lines between the two major political parties in the United States centered around differences over the role of government (ie, how large the safety net should be) and the role of this country in foreign affairs. Then in the 60s and 70s, commitment to civil rights for women and people of color became part of the divide. Finally, the so-called “culture wars” were added to the list when the Republican Party set out to make the GOP a home for Christian nationalists.

Today, however, the list of items that have been politicized seems to be expanding exponentially. We’ve seen that recently, when the wearing of a mask to prevent the spread of a pandemic became part of the divide between the right and the left. That particular issue is rooted in the politicization of science, including the demonization of expertise by conservatives. I am reminded of the fact that the Republican who is running for senate in my home state of Minnesota, Jason Lewis, spent most of his previous career as a right wing radio shock jock, where he expounded on the wisdom of “garage logic.”

The politicization of science and expertise has meant that almost any issue is now cast as a disagreement between liberals and conservatives. At the top of that list is the biggest existential threat we face today: climate change. But “garage logic” can be used to dismiss almost any issue to which science, research, and data can be applied. The most absurd example was when Representative Michele Bachmann used junk science to politicize lightbulbs—an issue Trump has more recently taken up.

Bachmann, a first-term Republican, is challenging the nation’s embrace of energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights, saying the government has no business telling consumers what kind of light bulbs they can buy…

“By 2012, incandescent light bulbs will be no more,” Bachmann said. “Fluorescent bulbs are more polluting because of their mercury content. We are working on a light bulb bill. If the Democrats can hose up a light bulb, don’t trust them with the country.”

This politicization has become personal when applied to civil servants in the federal government—who have traditionally been apolitical and served under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Whenever Trump or one of his enablers wants to attack one of them for saying something they don’t like, the search begins to find some link, no matter how obscure, to a Democrat. That is all conservatives need to hear in order to smear them and dismiss their claims. A perfect example was the “six degrees of separation” Paul Sperry of RealClearPolitics found between the whistleblower on the Ukraine matter and Joe Biden. But every civil servant who testified during the impeachment hearings was smeared as a Democrat at one point or another.

Taking the long view, I credit this politicization of everything to the launch of Fox News. In order to make a name for themselves, they convinced their audience that all of the other major media outlets had a liberal bias. Their claim to fame was to provide “balance” by presenting the conservative side. Eventually that led to what Julian Sanchez described as “epistemic closure” on the right.

Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)

Of course, major media outlets contributed to the politicization of everything in their obsession with bothsiderisms. Most notably was the creation of shows like Crossfire on CNN where the point was not to find common ground, but to inflame the differences. Parody demonstrates what happened, as we saw with “Point/Counter-Point” skits on Saturday Night Live featuring Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd.

That perfectly captured how people view political discussions, which is why so many of us avoid conservations across the divide.

A lot of ink has been spilled trying to explain why this country is so polarized. It all started when Republicans and Fox News decided to politicize almost every aspect of American life.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.