Hello again, my friends.
It’s already proven a busy year so far. There’s a light at the end of the dark and miserable tunnel of this pandemic. Vaccines are rolling out, infection numbers seem to be going down if with upswings here and there which (with any luck) may not prove serious trends. Economic indicators look up, stimulus payments have gone out to roughly 90% of Americans, businesses are tentatively beginning to hire folks again, and people are starting to make plans for life in the ‘After-Times’.
The political process here in the United States is still dysfunctional but it’s a dysfunction we’ve been suffering for quite a while, long before a random pandemic threw our lives into such desperate turmoil. The roots of it wind deeply into our narrative as a people and the organs of our society. They are too manifold to list here, let alone in any single writer’s life work.
I typically do not name names in these blogs, especially when they bend towards politics. The world is too large a place and a system too complex to reach out and pin the blame for our woes on any particular individuals. However, I would like to speak about a trio of people who had an effect far out of proportion to their importance as mere humans. And don’t get me wrong; I don’t speak as to character, just deeds. No person is beneath consideration, just as none are above reproach.
The Conservative movement as a whole in the United States is hardly monolithic. It contains a multitude of moving parts, but it is more organized and consistent than any other large scale political movement or group in the nation. Its political action organ is the Republican Party; in contrast, the Liberal movement in the US is represented by the Democratic Party albeit it is in no fashion as well organized as the GOP. Full personal disclosure; I am (still) a registered Republican and I voted the ‘straight GOP ticket’ in every election from 1988 to 2012. I no longer do so.
In the mid-1990s a new wave of tactics and attitudes energized the Republican Party. One of the leaders who espoused these new tactics was Newton ‘Newt’ Gingrich, Representative from Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (R, 1979-1999), and Speaker of the House Of Representatives from 1995 to 1999. Without getting heavily bogged down in attributions- since this is an opinion piece and not a strict historical examination- Gingrich was tired of compromising with the Liberal Democratic Party and pushed a tactic of ‘no surrender’ on political issues. Reaching deeply into the fears and concerns of Conservative ‘Middle America’ Gingrich recast the political process as a ‘winner take all, zero-sum game (quotations MINE)’ with its only goal the total domination of the Republican Party politically- and the Conservative movement culturally.
Gingrich had manifold allies among religious and business leaders outside of Congress. There existed a huge base of frightened and reactionary voices in the US electorate, disappointed with what they saw as a Liberal domination of the political and social conversation in the US. A turn ‘rightwards’ towards them and away from any centrist position of cooperation and compromise with the Liberals would gain millions of assured votes from large groups of Conservatives who felt disenfranchised by political compromises that in their opinion did not address their fears concerning immigration, abortion, gun control, progressive economic reforms, and the loss of the traditional White middle-class manufacturing jobs.
In stepped two men who would do much to shape the narrative of the Conservative movement in the US and empower millions of Conservative voters in the cataclysmic political and cultural battles of the last decade of the 20th Century and the current two decades of the 21st; Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. Beginning as a radio personality and program director respectively, these two men gave a voice to White middle class people who felt ‘left behind’ by what they perceived as a Liberal domination over news media, politics and the demographic and economic changes in American culture. Political content carried by radio and television had been deregulated in the previous decade by the Reagan Administration, meaning that the media no longer had to pay any lip service to ‘opposing views’ in their programming. This essentially meant that the gloves were off, and broadcasters could riff on about whatever they liked without providing any other viewpoints but their own.
Soon Ailes would spearhead FOX News, creating the first of what would be many ‘infotainment’ broadcasters free to espouse whatever political views they felt would draw listeners- and advertisers. Limbaugh hosted a series of national-level television shows. Their careers are well-documented and hardly need description here; and they each amassed sizeable fortunes by giving voice to the more radical fringes of the Conservative movement in the US and also serving to shape the ‘culture war’ (an invention of the Conservative and the narrative currently accepted by roughly one third of the US population.
In giving a voice to increasingly more extreme right-wing views of immigration, race, abortion, and political discourse- seeing ‘no enemies to the Right’- these two men took the ‘never surrender, zero-sum game’ politics pushed forwards by Gingrich (among others) and irrevocably widened the wedge forming between the Conservative and Liberal movements in the US. Gaining extremists’ votes (and wealth!) and not furthering bilateral political cooperation and compromise- vital to the effective function of politics and society- culminated in the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, the normalization of belief in deep-seated political and cultural conspiracies, pandemic denial, increasing racial tensions, and worst of all the death of effective discourse between two essentially manufactured world-views at the core of this nation’s political dysfunction.
It wasn’t just them alone, but they were the trail-breakers. They made earlier ‘fringe’ right-wing ideologies- some of them quite disturbing and disgusting- into ones accepted by the mainstream. Others on the right and the left came after them once they had opened up the Pandora’s Box of normalizing hatred and disparagement. I do not lay the blame solely at their feet- the current situation has a plethora of causes, among them in general avarice, apathy, mean-spiritedness, the belief that political discourse (and economics!) is a zero-sum game and the individual is the only meaningful element of society- but they sure HELPED these trends to gain wide-spread acceptance, and lined their own pockets doing it.
We all must remain wary of the motives of the ones who pander to the public’s fears and thus broker the votes. Demagoguery is alive and well in this society as it ever has been in all others before and to come, and we’d all do well to remember that demagogues usually operate to their own benefit DESPITE that of society- or US. Our political system and our society has not benefitted from the legacy of these men, no matter that they claimed to speak on the behalf of ‘the people’. They are gone now (Gingrich no longer serves in elected office, and Ailes and Limbaugh have since died) but their ideological descendants and fellow-travelers march ever forwards while the extremism they enabled (while they got rich by fostering it) gets more intense with every passing day. Fixing what they helped to break- the discourse, cooperation and compromise at the center of every functional democracy- will take MUCH longer than it took them to ruin, all for some votes and a few tens of millions of dollars.
Be careful, be honest with yourselves, and keep striving, my friends.