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Can't you politicians all just get along?

Two new books detail the sorry state of today's political discourse. Will election year 2016 bring change?
Author Mark Leibovich details the shallow narcissism of the Washington press corps.

Author Mark Leibovich details the shallow narcissism of the Washington press corps. Amazon

National political dialogue is about as bitter and polarized as it's been in the last 20 years. "Can't we all just get along?" is a question broadly asked but there's little hope in the near term that it will be answered in the affirmative.
 
The reasons can be found, in part, in two recent books. The first, "This Town," written by New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich, relates in disgusting detail the narcissim, foolishness and shallowness of much of official Washington but, especially, of the D.C. media types who are supposed to be keeping honest watch on the public processes. 

The second book, "Double Down" by Time's Mark Halpern and New York Magazine's John Heileman, takes telling shots at many of the principal figures in the 2012 Presidential campaign, including President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Vice President Joe Biden, Republican candidate Jon Huntsman and big time political donors, including financier George Soros.
 
National politicians have never been known for their shyness. Some have always been unattractive ambition machines. Same with self-styled media stars. But the percentage of them so describable has expanded explosively since my 30-plus years in the capital, ending in late 1997. So have the fees paid to lobbyists and ex-public officials peddling influence, and the lecture fees paid to present and former political and media-celebrity types.

A typical annual retainer of $50,000, paid in the 1970s and 1980s, now is $500,000-$750,000. A typical lecture fee has risen during the same period from $5,000 to $100,000 and above — more for a former president or always-on-TV celebrity.
 
Corporations, universities and others paying such fees apparently do not know that what they are getting is boilerplate, often delivered by characters who know little more than what they read daily on Politico or see on Fox News or MSNBC. The same boilerplate will be delivered by the same people, for the same fee, to another group the next day.
 
The pervasive vanity and self-service makes the players mean and petty. Their disagreements can never be resolved through simple goodwill. No, it's important to mock and diminish one's rivals. Make yourself look big by making the other guy look small. That's one reason we're stuck in gridlock and why policy or political disagreements get turned into contests where one side calls the other "Communists," "statists" or "enemies of free enterprise" while the other strikes back with "Right-wing extremists," "religious zealots" or "racists." In reality, the differences between the two sides are no larger than traditional ones between Democrats and Republicans.

There are many other reasons, of course, for the present crippling polarization.

One is that over several decades serious political discourse, centered around the content of public problems and their alternative solutions, has given way to a politics centered around day-to-day polling data. It is not What is the Best Solution to Public Problem A?  It is Who Is Helped and Who Hurt in Daily Polls by their Position on Problem A?

Where officeholders and media are obsessed by day-to-day polling data, there is little chance of solving a problem that involves political risk. Particularly if the problem is a long-term one such as fhe financing of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or Obamacare, or the genuine reform of immigration policy or the tax code. These are matters requiring bipartisan give-and-take and good faith bargaining. The political handlers of a president, senator or member of Congress will warn him or her that more is to be gained by demonizing the opposition than by negotiating with it serously. Watch the daily polls, they'll say, and you'll see.

Another reason underlying today's polarization is that former "intermediary institutions" such as political parties have diminished in importance and been replaced by single-issue and single-interest groups demanding "purity" from officeholders and candidates. You won't get our votes and money, they say, unless you agree with us all the way. A candidate thus is not judged on his or her general political philosophy, but on whether he or she toes the line on some advocacy group's litmus issue.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 5, 7:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you Ted. Wasn't going to read this one, save for the fact your spin on things is typically learned.

When it is less about dogma and resume enhancing, then we will get back to governing.

Serious political discourse? No longer allowed by the PC po-po.

The Geezer has spaketh.

Geezer

Posted Tue, Nov 5, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice piece, Ted. The fact is that the culture we live in is more about defeating a perceived opponent than seeking genuine solutions we all can live with. It would be nice if the creatures occupying politics and media suddenly became responsible human beings who did what their job description entails, but that might mean a drop in income or attention. I wish I could be more optimistic, but barring some cataclysmic event that forces everyone to come together, we're screwed.

Posted Tue, Nov 5, 10:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice piece, Ted. The fact is that the culture we live in is more about defeating a perceived opponent than seeking genuine solutions we all can live with. It would be nice if the creatures occupying politics and media suddenly became responsible human beings who did what their job description entails, but that might mean a drop in income or attention.

I wish I could be more optimistic but barring some cataclysmic event that forces everyone to come together, we're screwed as a nation.

Posted Tue, Nov 5, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

I applaud Crosscut for continuing to run TVD's "big picture" political columns. The idea that we out here are insulated from the madness in the other Washington is comforting but false. So we have to try to decipher the cupidity and foolishness, if only to protect ourselves from it.

Washington DC has become Nero's Rome, the ultimate confession of political impotence. The greed and narcissism that TVD describes eventually can only lead to a collapse of responsive national government. The author dismisses third party movements as annoyances that muddy the waters, consistent with his Washington Establishment pedigree. But some sort of fundamental rearranging of the deck chairs is going to be required, whether via third party movements or radical realignments within the two dominant parties. And the longer it is put off, the more difficult it will become.

woofer

Posted Tue, Nov 5, 3:55 p.m. Inappropriate

"Democrats have their equivalent true-believing constituencies prepared to wreak vengeance on apostates."

Oh, Ted, that pox-on-both-their-houses jazz was getting tired when David Broder was still alive, and now? It's antiquated. Who, exactly, are the Democratic equivalents of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party? What are the Democrats doing that's as bad as shutting down the government to protest a duly passed law? The Senate has passed much-needed immigration reform and the ENDA bill to ban workplace discrimination against gays, both with bipartisan support, and the Republican House Speaker won't even bring either one to a vote.

It's nice to be fair-minded, but this is just delusional.

DannyK

Posted Wed, Nov 6, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Danny's comment serves to illustrate the point. Yes, Democrats just as Republicans face pressure from single- and single-issue groups to toe their line.

I personally support abortion rights and gay marriage, for instance, but try to adopt a nuanced position on either as a Democratic candidate in a blue constituency and you will be punished. A Democratic candidate in our area risks suicide if he opposes fresh subsidies to Boeing or questions the unsustainable public-budget burdens of healtn and retirement benefits for teacher and government-employee union members.

Just the way it is.

Posted Wed, Nov 6, 12:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Danny asked for examples, and you give us 'blues pressure democrats to avoid nuances for equal rights'. Yep, both sides.
Eagerly awaiting your review of Chris Mathew's book about Tipper and Gipper. Broder himself couldn't outdo that Village buffet of bipartisan comity.

NickBob

Posted Wed, Nov 6, 12:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Oops, rolling eyes blocked my view of the rest of TVD's comment. Strident blues also pressure party leaders to avoid giving mega corporations free infrastructure and to screw blue collar workers from retirement benefits they earned over lifetime's work. I don't think Tipper, or LBJ, or HHH, or those Vikings Maggie and Scoop would have had any trouble agreeing with the strident blues on those issues.
Senator Humphrey wasn't notably nuanced on Civil Rights for his era. I think your old boss would be with the blues on that one too.

NickBob

Posted Wed, Nov 6, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Strange comments here from NickBob.

He apparently does not know that Hubert Humphrey was the single strongest advocate of civil rights in American politics from the period when he gave his famous civil-rights speech and introduced his minority plank at the Democratic convention in 1948--which changed Democrats' posture forever on the issue---until his role as prime sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and as VP when the Voting Rights Act and Great Society legislation were passed. No one else even close.

As to the other rants, it's hard to understand what NickBob means except that he hates Republicans and simply does not recognize that some single-issue and single-interest groups presure Democrats just as
others pressure the GOP. There are a huge range of issues which will not be successfully addressed until there is bipartisan cooperation
and reasoned negotiation. Partisan anger won't do it.

Posted Thu, Nov 7, 4:17 a.m. Inappropriate

My point exactly. "the single strongest advocate of civil rights in American politics" is unlikely to write "I personally support abortion rights and gay marriage, for instance, but try to adopt a nuanced position on either as a Democratic candidate in a blue constituency and you will be punished. " as if that's a bad thing. And yes, single issue groups are at work on both sides, but Danny's questions remain unanswered. They are:
-Who, exactly, are the Democratic equivalents of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party?
-What are the Democrats doing that's as bad as shutting down the government to protest a duly passed law?
-The Senate has passed much-needed immigration reform and the ENDA bill to ban workplace discrimination against gays, both with bipartisan support, and the Republican House Speaker won't even bring either one to a vote.
I don't hate Republicans. I proudly voted for Dan Evans long ago, but that party has been captured by Its Bircher faction which barely cooperates with any Repubican that even nods to working across the aisle, much less with anyone IN the other party. Which is a great blessing, given the Broderites in the Democratic Party that would give away all that their mentors fought for and won in the empty name of Bipartisanship.

NickBob

Posted Fri, Nov 8, 7:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Agreed - while there is some pressure from the left part of the Dems, they are not as wacko as the Tea Party folks who will burn down the crib to save the baby. What political theater have the Democrats conducted that is equivalent to shutting down the government causing a loss of $2 Billion, all for what? Making a point that they don't like ObamaCare?

The republican party has been infested by what started as a grassroots tax effort, but has now been co-opted by the Koch brothers and other deep pockets.

It's too bad. We need opposing voices in the process. The GOP used to stand for fiscal awareness, a scrutiny of foreign involvement, and a shared responsibility for the less fortunate. What's the saying? That instead of waging war on poverty we now wage ware on the poor.

Now the GOP stands for denying a women's right to abortion, voter suppression, and apparently repeal of Obamacare. Nothing like a grand vision I say. The GOP, to be a viable national party, outside of rural, white, old guy land is going have to shake of the American Taliban and regain some type of sanity.

Treker

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