What's Tony Thinking

Polarized: How We Got Here


It is truism that America today is deeply polarized, left and right, blue and red, Trump lovers and Trump haters. There no longer seem to be “Americans.” There are Liberals or Conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, Progressives and Evangelicals . . .

Neither side brooks much in the way of questioning or variance from the party line. Few believe that working with those of another persuasion or party is possible, or perhaps even morally defensible. The different poles and persuasions each have their own notions of truth and fact, and on what basis each is determined. Political affiliations and causes have taken on religious intensity ruling out compromise as apostasy.

But how did we get here?

It is a multi-faceted story. In his excellent column today Thomas Edsall offers some explanations, particularly for the way that politicians came to focus on the so-called “base” while ignoring those less partisan or extreme.

In Jill Lepore’s newish history of the U.S., These Truths, a longer perspective is offered on that question of how we got to our place of frenzied extremity. Particular people figure prominently. Nixon may be the grandfather of contemporary polarization. Phyllis Schlafly, to whom Lepore devotes considerable attention, was its mother. Lepore also draws attention to two pieces of legislation, one from the Reagan era, another from the Clinton period.

After pushing for a long time the Reagan administration finally succeeded in 1987 in repealing “The Fairness Doctrine” for broadcasters. Quoting Lepore, “The repeal meant that broadcasters, operating with federal licenses, had no obligation (any longer) either to dedicate programming to the public interest or to represent opposing points of view.” In other words, radio and television broadcasters and stations could be as one-sided and partisan as they wished. The only standard would be ratings.

At about that same time, FM radio opened up with most music stations moving to FM. That left AM for a new type of broadcasting, talk radio. In 1987 there were 240 talk radio stations, by 1992 there were 900. Lord knows how many there are today. Conservatives and conspiracy theorists had found their medium. Then add the explosion of cable television, also freed of any requirement of fairness or public interest.

It was only a matter of time before we had FOX news (and MSNBC, which started a year before FOX). No longer did most Americans get their views from a limited number of common sources (major networks and newspapers). Increasingly, our news was filtered through partisan lenses. The result: people living in ever louder, more frenzied echo chambers. The tribalization of a nation.

With The Fairness Doctrine on the scrap heap, it was down to what Roger Ailes, creator of FOX News, termed “the Like Factor.” “A person has only seven seconds to be likable before someone changes the channel.” With that calculus, reason and restraint mostly lost out to emotion and intensity. And now we are all watching our “likes” on Facebook!

A second, crucial moment came in 1996 when Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act, long pushed by Newt Gingrich. Lepore: “If little noticed at the time, Clinton’s approval of this startling piece of legislation would prove a lasting and terrible legacy of his presidency: it de-regulated the communications industry, lifting virtually all of its New Deal antimonopoly provisions, allowing for the subsequent consolidation of media companies and prohibiting regulation of the Internet with catastrophic consequences.” (italics added) This Act did for the internet what the 1987 one had done for TV and radio. The communication frontier became a new wild west.

So a few key decisions, little noticed at the time, have had a lot to do with getting us into the deep do-do.

Which raises the question of what to do about it. Chances of reversing these legislative acts in any foreseeable future are less than slight, meaning that communications in the U.S. is structured for polarization.

Nevertheless, I have one proposal for us all and particularly for those running for President or other elective office. Focus on what it means to be an American. What do we share and what do we owe to one another and to our country? And do this in a way that is more than platitudes bemoaning “division” or calling for “unity.”

What does it mean to be an American? We can start by saying forthrightly and unequivocally what does not define us: not race or religion, not gender or age, not wealth or a lack of it.

To be an American is to be patriotic, to love our country, including its land, history and culture, though doing so with an awareness and admission of our faults and failures. To be an American is to believe in the rule of law, for history teaches and observation confirms the rule of law, justice applied to all, is what separates the free society from a tyranny. To be an American is to believe in representative democracy, to understand and to participate in its practices and institutions, such as voting, paying your share of taxes, doing jury duty and being part of the community where you live. And to be an American is care about other Americans — to love them. This does not mean that love stops at our nation’s borders. But it starts here, by caring about our fellow citizens, their lives and welfare.

It is really about the practice of love, love for one another.


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