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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