Wingnuts’ destructive shenanigans — and the media who enable them

No, dysfunction in Washington isn't everyone's fault equally. Here's why one side is to blame -- and why it matters

Topics: The Right, partisanship, obstruction, Ron Fournier, beltway media, Editor's Picks, Media Criticism, Norm Ornstein, The Left, Eric Cantor, Pew poll, ,

Wingnuts' destructive shenanigans -- and the media who enable themMarsha Blackburn, Louie Gohmert (Credit: AP/Chris Usher/Carolyn Kaster)

The latest Pew Poll deep dive into American political attitudes inspired a very bored Ron Fournier to sigh deeply, dust off his lace cuffs and blithely wave off all concerns about “asymmetrical polarization,” the notion that the conservatives are moving farther and faster to the right than the left is moving left. “This is my fundamental disagreement with partisan journalists and political scientists who dedicate their careers to measuring increments of fault—the GOP’s share of blame is 20 percent or 60 percent or 80 percent,” Fournier gripes. “Who cares? Not the average voter who merely wants her leaders to work together and get results.”

Yes, if there’s one person qualified to speak for the average voter it’s Ron Fournier. Perhaps Pew should simplify its model and just interview him in the future. Who better to speak for the people than a well-connected Washington, D.C., insider? What he’s saying there is that even if one fully examines the Pew poll results (beyond the finding that both sides are moving apart) and sees that the right has led the way in its ideological zealotry and that some of the beliefs about process — like the unwillingness to compromise — are far more likely to be rigid on the right side of the dial, he’s just not interested. And that would even be understandable if he were an insurance salesman or a computer programmer. But he’s a political journalist and being bored with such details is malpractice.

Norm Ornstein who, with Thomas Mann, has written volumes about the issue of political polarization, takes the time to school him:

Does it matter whether the polarization, and the deep dysfunction that follows from it, is equal or not, including to the average voter? The answer is a resounding yes. If bad behavior—using the nation’s full faith and credit as a hostage to political demands, shutting down the government, attempting to undermine policies that have been lawfully enacted, blocking nominees not on the basis of their qualifications but to nullify the policies they would pursue, using filibusters as weapons of mass obstruction—is to be discouraged or abandoned, those who engage in it have to be held accountable. Saying both sides are equally responsible, insisting on equivalence as the mantra of mainstream journalism, leaves the average voter at sea, unable to identify and vote against those perpetrating the problem. The public is left with a deeper disdain for all politics and all politicians, and voters become more receptive to demagogues and those whose main qualification for office is that they have never served, won’t compromise, and see everything in stark black-and-white terms.

I’m going to guess that Fournier must want the public to think that. To do otherwise would be to grapple with the fact that while the two more starkly opposed ends of the political spectrum may be moving farther apart, over the last few decades the government has tilted strongly to the right under governments led by both parties and the momentum it’s created has unwillingly carried the center and so-called left to the right as well. The average liberal voter is very likely to become more stridently ideological in reaction to what it’s seeing in Washington — impeachments, stolen elections, bogus wars of choice, financial crises and dramatically increased lunacy on the part of elected GOP officials is forcing them to respond. What do people in Washington expect?

Ornstein and Mann’s thesis was really about polarization in Washington. And there is simply no doubt to any sentient being that the right has been far more aggressively partisan than the left in recent years. That’s just a fact. Indeed, if the left end of the population has a criticism of the Democrats it’s that they have been so passive in reaction to this rightward surge — and in many cases willing participants. There have certainly been far more examples of leading Democrats joining the Republicans on issues of both domestic and foreign policy than the other way around. During the last two administrations, “bipartisanship” has been redefined to mean the participation of one or two Republicans in a Democratic initiative while dozens of Democrats rush to join the Republicans in theirs. Even slightly engaged voters who only watch CNN in airports can see that.

It’s true that, as the Pew poll shows, more liberals consider compromise as a positive value than do conservatives. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that many of them are starting to see that as a “Lucy and the football” gambit. All you have to do is look at the war in Iraq and the budget slashing of the Obama years to get the picture of how well that’s worked out for the home team.  The polling showed that there is leftward movement in the electorate, and it is substantial. But grassroots political action that can make itself felt in the halls of power remains elusive, partially because of the lack of wealthy sponsors such as those who have been building the conservative movement for decades.

But that isn’t the only problem. The left is also stymied because the Democrats are using the power they do have to validate discrete progressive causes that have attained majority cultural support (with very little help from the Democratic Party, it must be noted). No decent liberal would stand in the way of advancing the human rights of our fellow men and women — and there are none who wouldn’t wish to see the powerful symbolic achievement of the first African-American and woman presidents. But there can also be little doubt that these victories are used as rewards to the left for the frequent capitulation of the Democratic Party in the broader economic and foreign policy status quo favored by global elites.

This is how the polarization continues to favor the far more organized right wing — it allows the “center” to be held by the wealthy and the national security establishment, which easily co-opts the far right with its clever conflation of anti-government rhetoric against low taxes and regulation with righteous appeals to patriotism and martial dominance, while the left rewards its true believers by politically legitimizing cultural achievements. In the end those immensely important liberal victories for human rights and the advancement of oppressed minorities into positions of power become paralyzing factors, rendering the left impotent to challenge the status quo in any other way lest the nation fall into the hands of the increasingly radical right wing.  It’s a neat trap, sprung by both parties, each for its own reasons.

Nonetheless, for every action there is reaction and the right’s crusade to make the GOP adopt radical tactics and policies will eventually result in one of two outcomes: ither the center continues to be pulled rightward as the Democratic political establishment successfully keeps its left flank from effectively organizing against the status quo or the left will  radicalize and put the same kind of pressure on the Democrats that the right has placed on the Republicans. The former simply spells more of the same as the right wing racks up victories and the Democratic Party normalizes conservative ideology as the result of “compromise” between the establishment center-right and the right. The latter would mean that the aggressive political style of the right-wing radicals will eventually be met with the same from the left, throwing the nation into total partisan gridlock as both parties find they will be met with powerful grass-roots opposition if they abandon their principles.

The odds are far greater that the current status quo, in which the center continues to inch to the right, will continue. There’s little reason to believe that the left has the organizational or financial capacity to stage a challenge to the establishment on the scale the right has done.  After all, they’ve been systematically building their movement, with the help of billionaires, for more than 40 years. But Democrats should worry anyway. If Eric Cantor can be defeated from the right in a deep red district, some liberal Democrats can be defeated in deep blue districts. Liberals can vote too. If they decide that it isn’t enough for the Democratic Party to belatedly take credit for cultural progress that has already been won by activists working on their own, they might just decide that a show of power, Tea Party-style, is in order.  If the party wishes to avoid that outcome, they might want to pay attention to this lurch leftward among their most engaged voters before those voters decide to get their attention in a much more painful way.

Out in the country the electorate is churning with discontent and dissatisfaction with both parties and the political establishment as represented by the very bored Ron Fournier should stop lazily admonishing the public that everyone should not play the blame game and instead inform themselves about the underlying dynamics. It is unlikely that the great “silent majority” or the Real Americans or the “sane people” are going to rise up and take control, demanding that both parties get in a room and work it all out. That is a children’s fantasy beloved in the Beltway but there is no evidence of that ever happening. As that Pew poll shows, this is evolving into a serious ideological battle that won’t be solved by a good scolding from the Beltway elite.

However, there is one bright spot of partisan harmony:  Both sides, radical or not, truly loathe the blasé insiders who constantly tell them to “get over it.”  In fact, that might be the one point of agreement that will bring the country together at last. It’s doubtful the blasé insiders will like what comes next.

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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