Imagine, if you will, a nation of reasonable men and women – one where discussions were calm and substantive, cooler heads always prevailed, and candidates were chosen based on their ability and their stances on issues.
This is a nation that has almost never existed – the Era of Good Feelings excepted. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I recommend the My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast, which recently had a great episode on the history of partisanship.) But ever since Publius and Brutus duked it out over the benefits of federalism, antagonism has been an inevitable, and perhaps desirable, consequence of democratic government. And it’s pretty hard to imagine anything in the last few years that points to that ever changing.
That being said, George W. Bush’s presidency unleashed a newly vituperative partisan split in America. And following Barack Obama’s promise of a new, more unified America, the divisions seem to only have increased. Republican stalwarts think Democrats are out to kill their mothers with death panels, and remake the country into a Communist, Fascist (don’t ask) state. A terrifying number honestly believe the president is not American. Democratic partisans, meanwhile, think Republicans should be shut completely out of the system.
Republicans made a few mixed efforts during the last election cycle to rein this in. Interestingly enough, they seemed to be rewarded for their successes.
It’s tricky to extrapolate national political swings from a handful of states where the results were often compounded by local issues, unpopular incumbents and weak candidates. But in New Jersey, relative moderate Republican Chris Christie managed to finally unseat unpopular Democratic governor Jon Corzine. In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell managed to keep the lid on an old woman-bashing thesis (the kind of ‘macaca moment’ that probably did in George Allen) to run a solid, reasonable campaign and beat out Democrat Creigh Deeds.
Neither Christie nor Corzine is exactly Olympia Snowe here, but my point is not so much to talk about their position in the political spectrum as the way they express their opinions. Moderate as an adjective can mean not only “in the center,” but reasonable, controlled. Both took tones less – crazy, for a better word – than some of their more ill-fated comrades.
For example, see the strange case of the New York 23rd, a Congressional district held since the Civil War by Republicans. Three candidates were running . Dede Scozzafava was the definition of liberal Republican, especially on social issues. Her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens, was in some cases even more conservative. And then there was the spoiler – conservative Doug Hoffman. Firebrands across the country rushed in to bash Scozzafava and tout Hoffman, quite predictably pissing off both the candidate and many of the area’s constituents. Then, just before the election, Scozzafava dropped out – and endorsed Owens, who won, spoiling the unanimous headlines the GOP might have liked to see the next day.
At the same time, the new big name in the House is that of Anh Cao, the Republican who won a major Democratic district in Louisiana, and recently voted for the health bill. He’s being called a traitor, but it’s now much more likely that in two years, he’ll still be called “Congressman.”
In the end, the Republican party may not be in danger of shifting all that much to the left in the near future. But perhaps they’ll at least be more rational about it. The GOP lost some conservative lions recently – Bill Safire, William Buckley – and it seemed as though the party was heading toward a scary place. But most Republicans now seem to be distancing themselves from the fringe elements – Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, for example. If they follow the example of pols like the unassuming Christie, they may have hope.
But here’s the problem: it’s not just the politicians. It’s the public, too. As the excellent blog Orcinus notes, radical militias, Nazis, and other right-wing elements are coming out of the woodwork in a way not seen since Waco. And, as the blog also points out, a lot of this has to do with the new legitimacy they’re being given in what we bloggers like to sneeringly refer to as “the mainstream media.”
By this, I mean modern-day Howard Beales like the sobbing, frog-boiling televised mess that is Glenn Beck.
(on a side note: watch this video. Do it now.)
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When nutjobs like Beck are on air spouting the same conspiracy theories some people believe, they’re emboldened. If even the mainstream, liberal-Jew-controlled media can admit to these “truths,” they feel, they must only be the tip of the iceberg.
CNN struck a blow against this mindset last week by eliminating the increasingly eliminationist rhetoric of Lou Dobbs, telling him to tone down the crazy on TV or quit. He chose the latter. Ding dong, the guy who claimed immigrants were bringing leprosy to the US is off cable news – for now, at least.
I’m not too worried for Dobbs’s future career. But CNN,which is now losing not only to FOX and MSNBC but its own more sensationalistic cousin Headline News, is clearly trying a new tack. In a time when partisanship seems to bring in the big ratings, it’s choosing to steer its own coverage to the center. Will it work? Well, no matter what it does, it’ll still probably be the Communist News Network to some. But it’s a brave idea. And if politicians and media can both manage to moderate their tone, the nation will be much healthier for it.