I tried for a good ten minutes to find a title that briefly and succinctly describes our broken political reality without using any type of expletive; I failed. It goes without saying that, particularly at the national level, the red-versus-blue tribal mentality of the day is extraordinarily awful. I’ve been trying to figure out the underlying causes for a couple years now, and think I have finally zeroed in on two central ailments.
The first is an adulteration of sincere information, which runs hand-in-hand with the demonization of views that challenge one’s own. This, in my opinion, has by far the most deleterious consequences.
As I have noted repeatedly in a somewhat jovial manner, the degradation of the consumption of “healthy” information has been somewhat rapid in this state. Newspapers are shriveling, news radio stations are shuttering and local television news has largely been reduced to 30 minutes of shooting coverages and cats of the week. Make no mistake, this is not because of a lack of competent journalists in all mediums. It is because the average Texan — indeed, American — is far more comfortable getting his “news” from the television monitors at a gas station than in something he actually has to read. I purposefully say he because the problem is significantly worse with men.
However, apart from apathy on the part of the average citizen, many political inclined individuals have moved away from the fair arbiters of newspapers and other unbiased news sources. Fox News and MSNBC are rather trite examples, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Many blogs allow partisans to create a completely alternate universe where their fantasies can become reality –ever so briefly. For a liberal in Austin who got 100% of her politics from Burnt Orange Report or Addicting Info, perhaps there could have been genuine shock to the utter shellacking that Wendy Davis and the Democratic slate received in Texas last year.
However, to cast this issue as equally bad on both sides would be monstrously disingenuous. When it comes to blogs and other online sources that spin the truth or just make stuff up, nobody even comes close to the Tea Party. I’m friends on Facebook with a few rabble-rousers within those organizations, and I see no shortage of evocative headlines from sketchy sources littering their timeline. They are the political equivalent of the National Enquirer, though that would probably be an insult to the Enquirer for the 5% of stuff they don’t make up.
Take this recent article from “Next Generation Patriots” about a supposed report linking Hillary Clinton to the Benghazi terrorist attack once and for all. Nevermind that even the Republican committee that orchestrated the investigations have cleared the administration. This is a BOMBSHELL REPORT! Sadly, all too many people believe this drek, because somehow they have been deluded into thinking that these uber-partisan online tabloids are more reliable than actual newspapers. I am baffled and speechless.
Similarly, I saw a Facebook friend share this nearly year-old post from “America’s Freedom Fighters,” which alleges that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the American government. At this point, I’m really at a loss for words. Are the authors of these sites actually delusional, like in a clinical way? Or do they just sit around a big room thinking of provocative things to completely lie about? And yet, individuals heavily involved in Tea Party causes, the 1% of the political process in this state, actually believe them and are influenced by them.
The decline of the information process has a companion in the elimination of robust opinion journalism. In my view, the harmful effects are comparable. We have become a nation of echo chamber dwelling simpletons, who become offended by anything that challenges our own preconceived notions.
For example, since the summer, I have served on the editorial board of The Daily Texan (one of the top 10 largest newspapers in the state), also serving as an editor for the opinion/editorial section. I like to think that the Texan runs our editorial content the way a reputable publication should. For the three semesters I have sat on the editorial board, our consensus opinion has been somewhat left-of-center, but we have always gone to lengths to ensure we have a plethora of conservative voices as columnists.
Sadly, few appear to appreciate this dedication to diversity in the editorial pages. The columns chock-full of liberal talking points get spread far-and-wide by like-minded individuals and groups; same for the conservative talking points. The few times I have shared columns that I disagreed with, but were particularly thought-provoking nonetheless, I faced nothing but derision by the “Tea Party Democrats” who incessantly accused me of being some type of horrendous political traitor who should be ashamed of myself.
Opinion content is not about validating all of your existent beliefs. Rather, it is about challenging your conventions. I have always been raised to believe if you cannot defend your views and positions against criticism and derision, they weren’t very good beliefs to begin with. With politics, that is especially true.
I subscribe to three magazines: The Atlantic, The Economist and Texas Monthly. If I had extra time and money, there would likely be others on that list, but those three in particular have always struck me as understanding how opinion content should work. They are unafraid to taking bold, new positions, and they defend these points with logic and reason remarkably well.
Particularly with the Economist, I found myself Freshman year of college disagreeing with a great deal of its content. The sophomoric juvenile in me wanted to just stop reading and retreat to the trite, backwards leftism of The Nation or Mother Jones —but the adult kept on reading. After a semester or two, two major developments had occurred in my political thought process. First, I had gotten a lot better at defending my tried-and-true liberal positions in the face of unwavering criticism. For example, the Economist is thoroughly skeptical of affirmative action, a program that I have always greatly supported. I like to think my defense of that position has been made more competent.
Second, and perhaps most important, some of my lousier political positions changed. Most notably, when I was in high school, I was a paleoliberal on topics such as free trade and protectionism. I opposed NAFTA. I favored silly, outdated things like tariffs and foolishly thought that such a course of action — say, by heavily taxing Japanese automobile imports — could do things like pay down our deficit and assist in economic prosperity.
The more I did research inspired by those articles, the more I realized that free trade — arguably the Economist’s biggest trademark — is not an inherently bad idea. My introduction to economics class at Brandeis — a “saltwater school” in Boston, not a “freshwater school” in Chicago — corroborated this, and that was that.
Sadly, few people use opinion-based political content for such reasons anymore. All too often, it’s just used as a way to support what one already believes. Anything with which one disagrees with is immediately labeled heresy or worse.
The second, and admittedly probably less important, problem plaguing our political system is a total elimination of respect for authority. Let me clarify: I do not mean blind allegiance to one’s government or jingoistic patriotism or the like. Instead, I mean respecting the opinions of experts in their pertinent fields.
The most egregious example of this, in my opinion, is the Tea Party total adulteration of the word “constitutional.” In their topsy-turvy world, the constitution has taken on this divine power in which it is revered as a truly perfect piece of literature. “Look to the constitution” is the cliche that is the answer to nearly every single political quandary, much how “look to the Bible” is the trite retort for a proselytizing fundamentalist.
First, it goes without saying that the constitution is far from perfect (3/5ths compromise, anyone?), but the real issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of how we adjudicate disputes about the nation’s founding charter: the court system.
Even otherwise reasonable conservatives fall into this trap, quickly calling Obamacare some type of “unconstitutional” trainwreck. Most criticisms fall within the realm of one’s opinion, but the constitutionality of a law is not one of them. The Supreme Court explicitly upheld the crux of Obamacare’s constitutionality in 2012. By definition, that means it’s constitutional. I would say you’re supposed to learn about stuff like judicial review in the 11th grade, but the Oklahoma Legislature is definitely doing their best to prevent that.
The Tea Party, egged-on by those aforementioned political tabloids, has taken it upon themselves to usurp the judicial system’s authority to call something constitutional. To a lesser extent, the left has done this as well. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a Democrat insist the campaign finance restrictions struck down in Citizens United were indeed “constitutional,” I could’ve bought an extra Dr Pepper at lunch today. You might disagree with the decision (I do), but, by definition, it’s not constitutional. My father, an attorney, made a point of teaching me that lesson in 2008 after the District of Columbia v. Heller case. If 14 year-old Noah can understand, you can too!
Sadly, the distrust of lawyers on legal matters is not the only example of such willful ignorance. Teachers have lost their ability to teach children without criticism and, of course, doctors and other medical professionals are accused of not knowing better than parents on medical knowledge. This was recently exemplified by the recent brouhaha over vaccines.
These deleterious beliefs of one’s superiority over everyone and anyone — no matter how knowledgeable or qualified on pertinent issues — have penetrated even ostensibly professional quarters of our society. I recently found Greg Groogan, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate, promulgating that exact type of hooey, specifically on the vaccine issue. (If you want to have some fun, check out the succeeding conversation on Twitter. I called him out, and he went off on me in especially sanctimonious and patronizing way. This, from someone who just straight-up fabricated stuff during the last mayoral election.)
This was a little more longwinded than I was going for, but those are what I believe to be the two most harmful impediments to a functional political system that we currently face. I fully admit I have broken these rules myself on a variety of occasions, but I have recently been trying my best to follow them.