Sunday, April 22, 2012

Who's feeding political polarization and why: Steve Pearlstein joins the wankers

You might suggest that Steven Pearlstein should stick to economics and business reporting. And you'd have a point. People have often said the same thing about Paul Krugman when he wanks about politics instead of sticking to economics.

To demonstrate, I'm going to have a go at Pearlstein's latest article at WaPo - its so full of fail that I can't help myself.

Its abundantly clear that he drank the D.C. village kool-aid when he starts off his column by laying out the false equivalency premise as his starting point.

To say politics has become polarized is another way of saying that the politicians we nominate and elect have moved away from the ideological center, that the Democratic Party has become more liberal and the Republicans more conservative, with little or no overlap. Liberal Republicans are all but extinct, and conservative Democrats aren’t far behind. Genuine bipartisan compromise has gone from standard practice to quaint anomaly.
This one has been done to death. So I'm not going to spend a lot of time pointing out the reality that President Obama and the Democrats have continually reached out to work with Republicans only to see them slap their hands and march headlong over the cliff of extremism. Perhaps if you can't see that one central theme by now, you should stop right there.

But on he goes. And very quickly he gives us his infantile view of how "good" politics should work.
In the vision of politics that many of us carry around in our heads, it is the “median voter,” at the center of the ideological spectrum, who ultimately is supposed to determine the long-term course of government policy. In this model, the best way — the only way — for a party to increase its political market share is to moderate its views to attract such independent swing voters. When either party has tried a different strategy (Barry Goldwater in ’64, say, or George McGovern in ’72), it has failed.
First of all, we need to ask whether or not he's comparing modern-day Republicans to Barry Goldwater - who would definitely be considered a soshulist these days - and President Obama to George McGovern.  If so, all I can say is "puhleeze!"

Beyond that, I'd suggest that the antidote to polarization is not some chase after the "median voter," but to do what President Obama does so well...think through what would pragmatically work. That's the ideal we should all be striving for.

Pearlstein goes on to talk about how he thinks we got so far off track. And here's where he finds just a bit of sanity.
This transformation has its roots in what has become the dominant reality of American politics: the arms race in campaign finance. Candidates and parties now raise and spend enormous sums, well beyond what would reasonably be needed to provide for a well-informed electorate and well beyond what is raised and spent in other advanced democracies.
I'd agree that the "arms race in campaign finance" has had a terribly corrosive affect on our democracy. But I had to scratch my head to figure out how it contributes to polarization. Here's the connection Pearlstein makes.
And how is the money spent? Anyone with a telephone, TV set or Internet connection has surely noticed that it is mainly used to produce an ever-increasing volume of negative, distorting and ideologically tinged advertising about opposing candidates and parties.
First of all, I'd suggest that Mr. Pearlstein could use a little education on how the Obama campaign is spending their money (hint: staffing the ground game gets 5 times the amount as media buys/production).

But even more importantly, I've thought for a long time that this country needs a serious discussion about what constitutes "negative" advertising. The truth is - as a culture we have lost the idea of what it means to disagree. There is a stark difference between saying your opponent is an unpatriotic danger to the country and saying their policies will not work. The later is not negative advertising...its simple disagreement. Too many people fail to make that distinction and its why we have so much trouble talking to each other.

But lets get to the heart of what Pearlstein is saying. He gives it away in his title: Turned off from politics? That's exactly what politicians want. Yeah, that's why Republicans are so hell-bent on things like voter ID laws that will keep people from being able to vote and Democrats are fighting them tooth and nail.

Pearstein ends his article with a statement that should be anathema to any Democrat.
Government can’t be the solution when it is the problem.
Lets see...where have we heard that before?

I'd suggest that if Pearlstein wants to understand why - no matter what Democrats do - Republicans have a vested interest in keeping voters turned off to politics - he should take a look at what retired Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren said when he pulled the curtain back to expose the cynical tactics employed by that party.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. 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).
From the horse's mouth you have the reason why one political party has a vested interest in the polarization that leads to a stagnation in our system of governance. And you, Mr. Pearlstein, have played right into their hand.


  1. I believe that President Obama will have figured a way to marginalize the Republicans by November. He's been doing a good job of it since 2010. Everybody acting is on record and he can play that any way he likes. I'm not worried about the President. The Dems are going to have to be disciplined to pull it off. They have 6 months.

    I wish our media didn't have a bunch of hacks pontificating about things they have no feel for.


  2. There has got to be a lot of money floating around to the MSM to start trying to make this election a horse race. We have problems with some Democratic members in the House and Senate, but I think President Obama can handle them. (Except maybe Manchin) he is a loose cannon waiting to go off. I am hoping the American people will really start paying attention on what is happening in this country. I can only HOPE 4 more years for 44.
    Thanks again Smartypants for your excelllent analysis of the idiots in the media.


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