I have been writing a lot about the lack of cooperation and civility in the nation’s political system. As a nation, we are becoming more and more divided and the polarization is leading to a potential meltdown of the two-party system. All of this rancor is not good for politics or the nation. So, what has changed to create this level of angst?
In my opinion, there are three major culprits that have helped fuel this level of anger and distrust.
The Televising of Congress.
I first came to Washington to work in 1977. There was no televising the House or Senate chambers at that time. In March of 1979 the House began the day with the first televised session of Congress. Rep. Al Gore was the first member of Congress to speak live on television from the floor of the House. (He would later invent the Internet). It was not long before members saw some of the value of taking to the floor to make speeches about their pet issues. Cong. Bob Walker (R-PA) was one that made it a habit to speak on the floor during what is referred to as Extension of Remarks. This is a period of time after the House has adjourned for the day where Members can speak on any subject and become part of the Congressional Record. Cong. Walker would give stem-winding speeches and gesture in such a way that you would believe the entire House membership was sitting there intently listening to his speech. The Speaker of the House at the time, Tip O’Neill (D-MA) became so incensed that he directed the camera operators to pan the House floor to show that nobody was actually listening. But that did not stop Bob Walker. He was not speaking to his fellow House members, he was speaking directly to those tuning in on TV.
To make that point former Congressman Jack Kemp told a story about being at a conference and having a gentleman approach him. “Say, are you Congressman Jack Kemp?” the gentleman inquired. Kemp puffed up his chest at being recognized and acknowledged that he was, in fact, Congressman Jack Kemp. The man then said, “Do you know Congressman Bob Walker?” Jack knew then that he had to start making a few more speeches on the floor to be seen on TV.
Over in the Senate, they were more reluctant to allow the intrusive cameras into the chamber. The compromise was to provide a closed-circuit radio broadcast of the floor proceedings to allow the staff in each office to monitor the floor actions. As a staff member at that time, we all memorized the voices of each member so we knew who was talking. But the drumbeat to televise continued and finally, in June of 1986 the Senate agreed to a trial period but everyone knew they could never turn the cameras off one they were turned on.
When I worked in the Senate nobody brought a chart to the floor. We did not care about looking at your chart. But today almost everyone has a staff member standing their erecting and changing various charts. Those charts are for the viewing public. Each party in the Senate has a television studio and each has a make-up person. Members are known to routinely go by for a quick touch up (male and female) before giving a speech on the floor.
The problem with all of this live television is that members are no longer talking to each other. They are talking past each other and trying to talk directly to the voting public. This means you don’t try to compromise or reach agreements but rather you try to inflame the public to support your position and oppose the other side. Gone are the days when members would sit down with each other and hammer out compromises on the problems facing the nation.
24-Hour News Cycle
The second problem is the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. Years ago, we had the major networks and they each had a nightly news show that lasted 30-60 minutes. The major newspapers around the nation were your major source of news and being honest they were split between liberal and conservative viewpoints. It tilted slightly liberal but not to the extreme that we see today. Now we have Fox News (conservative), MSNBC (liberal) and CNN (supposedly neutral but now leaning liberal) airing news all day and all night. They have to fill this time with something and so we get an onslaught of talking heads pushing their opinions at the viewing public.
Couple that with talk radio with more talking heads on both sides of the political spectrum and the public hears over and over why they should support or oppose any given political issue of the day. Does anyone really think that Rush Limbaugh or Stephanie Miller are really interested in dialogue? Would we be better off without Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow? All of these people are talking to their base with the intent to rile them up and move them to speak out and oppose anyone daring to differ with their particular opinion. They spew out their views and so many that have no real opinion on an issue end up adopting what these political raconteurs have spoon fed them with amusing stories and hot rhetoric.
How many of us could really do without Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media? What started out as a vehicle to post pictures of our family and stay in touch with family and friends has evolved into something entirely different. Facebook was mentioned prominently in the accusations against Russia meddling in our election process. If you go to your Facebook page I am sure you will find that on a normal day about 30% of the posts have some political slant and during the election season that number probably soars to over 70%. There are organizations on both sides that have young people whose only job is to produce memes for Facebook and other social media sites disparaging the other side. They take some kernel of truth and distort it to make it say what they want it to say. Then thousands of unwitting people repost this gibberish without knowing that it originates from some twenty-something being paid to create them. I used to have an office at 455 Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC. There were two organizations in the building whose only purpose was to attack Republicans and conservatives. I have no doubt there were conservative groups located somewhere else in DC.
Twitter is yet another animal. President Trump has adopted Twitter as his method of communicating with his base of supporters. He starts tweeting early in the morning and keeps it going most of the day. It is like he feels compelled to tweet out every thought that comes to his mind.
Let’s not think the left or other opponents of President Trump are not engaged in a full-on press of tweets disparaging the President. Some feel compelled to offer up a response to every tweet the President puts out and so the back and forth goes.
Then you can go online to a newspaper and read the comments. These are done anonymously with fake names and so anything goes. There is nothing too harsh, from both sides of the spectrum, that cannot be written. There are very few articles written that some commenter cannot spin into a diatribe about one political point of view or the other and then the debate begins.
I strongly believe that the three items listed above has led to and helped accelerate the political divide that now infects our voting public. It suppresses any desire to have a civil dialogue and allows the extremists in both parties to dominate the discussion. It further inhibits those that are elected from coming together to find workable compromises to address the problems facing the nation. If a Republican dare to speak with Democrats he/she is labeled a Republican In Name Only (RINO) and when a Democrat does it they are threatened with a primary by someone further left than them. Gone are the days when reasonable people could sit down and find common ground in the political arena and as a nation, we are worse off for this situation.
I would hope that those that engage in this political use of social media would take a look at what they are doing and ask themselves if they think they are actually accomplishing anything of value? Do they think they are really changing the minds of people or are they just throwing out mud hoping some of it will stick?