Author Mark Leibovich details the shallow narcissism of the Washington press corps. Credit: 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.
Republicans, at present, are plagued by Tea Partiers wishing to destroy Obacame and/or cut federal spending sharply; libertarians demanding renunciation of government as an institution; and Santorum followers accepting none but their own views on social and religious isues. Democrats have their equivalent true-believing constituencies prepared to wreak vengeance on apostates.
If you rely on money and votes from groups unaccepting of compromise, a candidate reasons, why not take their money and get their votes? It's a lot easier than taking a nuanced position which might cause them to oppose you in a primary.
An important factor, of course, is We, the Voters. If we keep responding to shallow, polarizing political messages and candidates, that is what we will get. If we keep accepting equally shallow media coverage, that is what we will get.
An interesting part of "This Town" is devoted to the death and funeral of NBC correspondent Tim Russert a few years back. Russert, a former press secretary to Sen. Pat Moynihan of New York, was well-liked in the D.C. political and media communities. Both he and his wife were quite active on the social scene. Russert, by today's terms, was a paragon of fairness, journalistic objectivity and integrity. Twenty years earlier, he would have been seen as simply adhering to the workaday journalistic values shared by most of his media colleagues.
Russert's funeral became a place to see and be seen and the event of his death a reason for colleagues to compete in showering him with their exaggerated praise. I knew Russert a bit in his early press-secretary days and suspect he would have been the first to laugh at the spectacle. My eldest daughter, a businesswoman living in Florida, called me at the time to ask if I knew Russert and then remarked: "I did not realize until his funeral that he was a former President of the United States."
For those seeking reassurance, there is this: We've passed through demoralizing, low political periods in the past. In the 19th century, in particular, we had a series of presidents who could most generously be described as mediocre. Leaders such as George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Franklin Roosvelt have been anomalies. Daily political discourse right into the mid-20th Century could be poisonous.
Third-party movements regularly materialized to confuse the political scene. In the mid-1930s fascist and Communist political rallies drew huge crowds in major American cities. The national Democratic party's so-called Solid South was led by courthouse racists. McCarthyism swept through the 1950s Republican Party. George Wallace, Henry Wallace and Ross Perot all led significant third-party movements which had an effect on national political outcomes. (In fact, the 1968 Wallace and 1992 Perot candidacies likely took votes which helped Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, respectively, into the White House.)
The closest modern-day parallel to today's politics is probably the decade of the 1920s when Wall Street speculation and greed, prohibition, crime, empty celebrities and a hedonistic, anything-goes popular culture preceded the grim Depression of the 1930s. The Depression and World War II sobered us and made our postwar politics serious indeed. That period brought more important social and economic change — supported across party and ideological lines — than at any time in the 20th Century.
Typically, we only come fully together when some calamity — Depression, Pearl Harbor, World War, 9/11 — forces unity upon us. Let us hope we will not experience such calamity in the immediate future. We had a near-miss in the 2008 financial crisis.
The only other route out of the depths will involve greater seriousness and responsibility from our elected leaders and candidates; the same from media; and, finally, judgments made by the rest of us about the overall characters and peformances of our public servants rather than their postures on one or two hot-button but secondary issues.
The immediate prospect is not good. Presidential second terms are notably unproductive and this one appears likely to be bogged down for the next three years in a rolling series of budget battles. In the meantime, Benghazi, the IRS, NSA and the Obamacare rollout are contributing to our continuing polarization.
Change in 2016?
Both Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie, the present front-runners for their parties' presidential nominations, have worked in the past across partisan and ideological lines. Both also have political jugular instincts and reputations for close-in knife fighting. Maybe in time we'll get along. And then again, maybe not.