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The trivialization of American politics

Lost in the latest outrage is any focus on solving big problems

The constant media coverage of fringe figures and controversy doesn't leave much room for discussions of political issues in a mature and considered manner, Rothenberg writes.
The constant media coverage of fringe figures and controversy doesn't leave much room for discussions of political issues in a mature and considered manner, Rothenberg writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Depending on your age, you may not remember when most federal elections were about issues.

Sometimes the issues involved foreign policy and national security, such as the Panama Canal treaties, missiles in Europe, Quemoy-Matsu, or how the United States should respond to Soviet initiatives in Africa or the Western Hemisphere.

Often, domestic issues were a priority to voters and the journalists who tried to understand what moved public opinion. Campaigns were filled with talk of clean air and water, taxes, the budget deficit, funding Social Security, abortion or gun control.

We are still talking about some of these topics in 2021, of course, but to a large extent — and at the risk of practicing false equivalency — Republicans and Democrats seem locked into their positions and their caricatures of the opposition.

Few politicians try to change voters’ opinions. They are more interested in turning out their supporters, which involves calling their opponents names (e.g., socialist, racist) and defining the opposition by its most polarizing members.

Many in the national media now spend too much time on the fringes of the political parties, seizing on the most contentious comments from the far sides of the spectrum, whether coming from Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene or California Democrat Maxine Waters.

Eternal outrage

And since politicians at the local, state and national levels say lots of silly, stupid, offensive or merely controversial things — especially in the era of cellphone video and 24-hour cable news programming, stacked with live stand-up interviews with any lawmaker within earshot of a camera or Zoom link — we will never want for material that can offend or outrage just about anyone.

This trivialization of politics draws us away from substance, national problems and potential policy solutions, and instead causes us to see everything as an “us” and “them” moment, where each side is offended by almost everything and anything the other side does or doesn’t do.

Instead of talking policy or ideas, talking heads go on and on about kneeling during the national anthem at a sporting event.

Conservatives are particularly upset about “cancel culture,” which I believe isn’t very different from what we used to call “political correctness.” Some of their concerns are entirely reasonable. Others are not and display an insensitivity to how other people might feel.

You would think that people on both sides could use their common sense to distinguish between what is reasonable and what isn’t, but they obviously can’t, once they have picked a team and put on that team’s jersey.

Changing times

Few are willing to challenge their own assumptions or consider their opponents’ perspectives. This has been true for years of Fox News’ prime-time programming, but it is now also true of CNN’s and MSNBC’s.

When I was teaching at Bucknell College in the late 1970s, I arranged for economist Walter Williams to come to campus. He spoke to one or two classes and at a larger gathering, I believe.

Williams, who died in December, was a libertarian and a Black man. Given that Bucknell was heavily white and the personal views of my political science department colleagues ranged from liberal to left, I thought my students, who were bright and invariably personable, might benefit from hearing somebody who was so different in so many ways.

I remember only one thing that Williams, who liked to shock people with some of his views, told those Bucknell students. He said that pimps were no different from real estate agents — both brought buyers and sellers together.

Student reactions varied, but I thought the comment was funny, even if it was not entirely accurate. But at least it got students thinking about something they had never considered before, which I hope was the main reason why they attended Bucknell.

I don’t know whether that incident would get me fired if it happened today. It’s quite possible that it might. But my students back then took Walter Williams and his controversial views in stride — just as they should have.

There is not much chance we’ll get back to talking about issues, policies and ideas in the next few years.

People are too angry, confrontational and partisan, and that kind of environment isn’t conducive to a discussion of substantive public policy issues, though President Joe Biden deserves credit for trying to lower the temperature nationally and on Capitol Hill. (Former President Donald Trump, on the other hand, was more about chaos and his personal opinions than about a serious discussion of ideas and issues.)

The 24/7 political coverage on cable TV and the internet is, of course, partially responsible for our partisan polarization. But it also bears some responsibility for our focus on the trivial.

MSNBC, Fox News and internet bomb-throwers always need another cause célèbre to keep people glued to their televisions and computer screens. So the easiest thing to do is to talk about the current controversy or the latest outlandish statement made by some backbench officeholder.

Democrats reading this column will argue it’s the Republicans’ fault. Republicans will insist it’s the Democrats’ fault. But rather than arguing about who is to blame, I’d prefer both parties talk about new ideas to deal with the whole range of problems we all face — from global climate change, national security and health care to budget deficits and income inequality.

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