Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Little Anecdote

I was at my friend, Matt's, annual St. Patrick's Day blowout in Chicago and found myself talking politics with what I call a "Michigan-Ohio State Partisan".

To an Ohio State fan, a Michigan football player may be a pre-med student with straight A's who volunteers at an orphanage in the offseason, has vowed to give 70% of his NFL salary to charity, then go to medical school where he will cure cancer ... and that Buckeye fan will want to see him stricken blind, even if it means thousands of people will someday needlessly die of cancer, so long as that player can't beat Ohio State on Saturday. This is how a "Michigan-Ohio State Partisan" approaches politics: you are never right about anything unless I have forced you to agree with me, and the world can be consumed in a massive conflagration as long as I'm in charge when it does.

"Michigan-Ohio State Partisans" support their teams unconditionally, interacting with politics in the same way a sports fan relates to his team: unthinking, Kool-Aid drinking, programmed right down to the party line. What is bad for your side is by definition good for mine, and vice-versa. It transcends issues into the realm of schadenfreude.

The metaphor is especially elegant considering that Michigan (Go Blue) is generally considered by their foes to be highly elitist - both about their team's success and their academic standing - and idealistic to nth degree. Conversely, Ohio State (the scarlet and grey) is considered to be more fanatical, less likely to play by any recognized rules of war, and less interested in education.

A "Michigan-Ohio State Partisan" is comparatively unconcerned with actual issues. Consider: why would the same people agree on tax policy, Iraq, and abortion rights? Where is the commonality in those issues? Jon Stewart, in America: A Guide To Democracy Inaction, was sadly on point when he said parties have traditionally done a great job of providing Americans with opinions. The masses get a healthy dose of programming, which leads to fanaticism.

The woman I was talking to had all the Fox News anti-Obama talking points down:

-She said McCain "deserved" to be President because of what he went through at the Hanoi Hilton. I asked how that separated him from thousands of other POW's. I also asked if she voted for George W. Bush, she said yes, and I pointed out that by her own criteria, a man who bypassed Vietnam in the National Guard thanks to his family connections - and no one could even prove he showed up for that duty - by her definition was unqualified for the job, yet she voted for him anyway.

-She then started in on Tim Geithner's tax issues. "How can someone be in charge of our economy who can't even do his own taxes correctly?" I pointed out that a number of prominent Republicans still voted for his confirmation. When she asked what it says about Obama that he couldn't appropriately vet Geithner, I pointed out that McCain made grand pronouncements about sweeping the lobbyists and special interests out of Washington and that there would be no lobbyists in his campaign, yet the architect of his economic policy was Phil Gramm (lobbyist) and his chief foreign policy adviser was Randy Scheunemann (lobbyist). The latter was especially troubling given Scheunemann's lobbying for the Republic of Georgia, and McCain's subsequent hawkishness when Russia overreacted to Georgian provocation. This was a case where there was actually a straight line between lobbying money and the candidate's policy. Her response was that we're not talking about McCain, we're talking about Obama. Convenient, except not exactly true if you're making the case for why McCain should be President.

-She then began with, "What has Obama ever accomplished?"  To which, I replied, "Well, he managed to get into college without daddy's help, so that's a leg up right there."   

-Finally, she launched into a soliloquy on how Obama is too radical, but in the course of the diatribe talked about how great she thought Sarah Palin was. Now, only the most programmed of blind partisans actually believe Palin was acceptable. But for someone who loves Palin to be concerned with anyone else's radicalism is high comedy. Apparently it's not being radical that is the issue - it's being radically liberal. Being radically conservative is just being radically right.

This was, however, an example of of the Limbaugh/DeLay philosophy that has been well enunciated by the Republicans: the left is the enemy. Conservatives continue to fight the very idea of liberalism, to fight for their secular religion in a way liberals simply do not. This is why Rush does not have a liberal counterpart: Democrats simply aren't wired that way.

Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman from Florida, recently talked of his experience with the Bush administration's view that: if you support us 95% of the time, you're our enemy 5% of the time and that is unacceptable. In ideology and in the culture of their organization, there is a hard wired intolerance, and it didn't even come from W - its roots can be traced back to Nixon. This explains why there is no liberal Rush Limbaugh dominating the discourse, driving opinion, and (as Michael Steele and Phil Gingrey learned the hard way) enforcing unwavering solidarity.

This foreshadows a coming problem, however.

The Information Age has enabled the proliferation of endless varieties of media, so we can customize which media we consume in the same way that we customize our culinary experience through bewildering variety at the supermarket. Three decades ago we had only news magazines, newspapers, and broadcast television. It wasn't a media supermarket; it was a media mini-mart.

While newspapers, editorially, may have leaned one way or the other - the Chicago Tribune leaned right while the New York Times leaned left - newspapers, like network news divisions and news magazines, were fundamentally news gathering organizations. They were bound by an established code of ethics to be honest brokers. We all consumed largely the same information, so there was less argument over the fundamental facts of issues.

Today, if you're a conservative, you can tune into Fox News, which even the intellectual wing of the conservative party understands is little more than propaganda, and convince yourself that you're getting the straight story. Tucker Carlson, as we saw at CPAC, was booed for pointing out this distinction between Fox News and, well... actual news... when he suggested that their party should be a little more concerned with facts. And this customization of experience is especially acute online, where a liberal can read Huffington Post and Daily Kos and get only the convenient truths.

We are hitting a dangerous point in the evolution of Information Age media because, for those who are interested in the straight story, the honest brokers face extinction. Printed newspapers are no longer a sustainable business model, so there will likely be a period of reorganization where some people simply won't have access to daily papers for a time. And network news now occupies a smaller, less prominent space in the landscape with so many more specialized options available today. We don't have the news of the day being explained to us by the honest-broker troika of Rather, Jennings and Brokaw anymore. We're just as likely to tune in to Olbermann or Hannity.

Where once we could only choose to be exposed to the stories or not be exposed to them, we can now customize our experience and choose which information we consume. We can hand-pick the lens through which we want to view our political milieu, and more or less seek out that which validates our predilections. That which, in an unbiased, nonpartisan way would challenge our world view is rapidly dwindling like snow in a spring thaw. You have to invest some time in seeking out counterbalances for your leanings.

This is a very dangerous time as media re-defines itself, and right now it leaves people susceptible to the type of blind, fanatical partisanship that afflicts a passionate sports rivalry.

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