The following is brought to you courtesy of the Bureau of Obviousness – we are a nation divided. At least, with 50 million-plus people voting in each direction, this much should be obvious.
To hear it from some of America’s most recognizable voices, however, we’re one nation under God … save for a few fringe lunatics.
In the months before the election, leftwing blimp/propagandist/filmmaker Michael Moore attempted to spread the message that Americans were inherently liberal and Republicans were only hanging on via trickery.
On election night, crusty, cranky “Crossfire” commentator Robert Novak used Bush’s big lead to justify his belief that America is predominantly a conservative country.
Both are wrong. With splits this large, we are predominantly nothing (save for conflicted).
After the election, the punditry was quick to point out that this election was more about values than any other. For once, these professional gadflies and gasbags actually came close to being right.
However, the values war they speak of is not necessarily one between left and right, but one that divides America and Americans in far more subtle and subversive ways; ways that the media have failed to adequately explain.
One of the most basic divides in politics is that between those who make the decisions and those who are affected by the decisions made.
The insiders are the denizens of Washington and Wall Street, the so-called “movers and shakers” of the world. The outsiders are those removed from these havens of power and dwellers of the world-at-large. The media are the conduits that channel information between them.
Unfortunately, this paradigm represents an ideal rather than a reality. From before World War II well into the 1960s, the press was manipulated into serving as the voice of those in power.
Much of the storied war coverage from the Allied front amounted to little more than government propaganda. Since it was propaganda that the American public could feel good about, no one seemed to mind.
Vietnam represented a turning point in the relationship the insiders had with both the press and the outside world.
Journalists placed so much faith in the lawmakers they covered that they took the distortions made by politicians as personal affronts.
Early backers of the war, such as Walter Lippman and Walter Cronkite, withdrew their support when it became clear they were fed lies. No longer would journalists be surrogates for the government.
Further controversies, such as Watergate, cemented the newfound role of the press as government critics.
Since Richard Nixon bore the brunt of it, partisans were all too happy to make wild allegations of liberal media bias.
These allegations, of course, overlook the fact that the press’ skepticism initially arose from the secretive and deceitful nature of the Democratic Johnson administration.
From the division between media and government came the even wider division between government insiders and masses of outsiders.
Generally speaking, Americans were angry and sick of politicians lying to them. This outrage culminated with the election of Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist ex-peanut farmer who was very much an outsider.
Unfortunately, by this point the press, high on hubris, had become an insider group of its own. Journalists who were underdogs in Vietnam were in an establishment of their own by 1980.
Thus, just as they had broken with insider Washington, journalists broke with outside America as well.
These schisms do much to explain some of the more curious developments in recent political history.
Consider, for example, the 1992 and 2004 elections. By 1992, both the press, and, to a lesser extent, America as a whole, was sick of George H.W. Bush and his band of Reagan-era Washington insiders.
The press saw Bill Clinton, an outside candidate who had raised himself up from poverty, as a breath of fresh air, and outside America saw him as someone with whom it shared a common connection.
However, when Clinton proved to be hostile and secretive, the press turned vicious in a hurry. And when he violated the moral and ethical codes much of outside America valued, it too withdrew a measure of its crucial support.
Similarly, the 2004 election turned early perceptions inside out. George W. Bush’s relationship with the press had been rocky throughout much of his term.
To add to his woe, he carried with him the perception that his policies were designed to pander to corporate America at the expense of the middle class.
Democrats sought to exploit what they believed to be a wide rift between the man in the White House and the public at large.
“Don’t vote for Bush,” they warned. “Vote for someone who will stick up for the people.”
Unfortunately for them, this campaign fell flat on its face. Grassroots campaigns sprang up backing Bush and outside America supported him more than it opposed him.
What both Democrats and the increasingly insider press failed to notice was the extent to which Bush connected with outside Americans on issues they did not seem to care enough about.
The Elite and the Ordinary
The second major divide in America is the one that occurs between the academic elite and the ordinary citizenry. The elites, like the insiders, flock to certain bastions of like-minded thought and tend to stay there.
University campuses and policy think tanks are their substitutes for Washington. Unlike insiders, however, their status rests not on political power and proximity to decision-making, but on wealth and pedigree.
There exists an unsubstantiated but viciously propagated myth that the divide between the elite and the common can be expressed in political terms.
“Out-of-touch liberals control colleges and contaminate our children’s minds,” conservative pundits bemoan. “Republicans, on the other hand, represent the common man.”
Any person gullible enough to believe this ruse need only consider the examples of President Bush and Tom Daschle. Daschle, the recently deposed Democratic leader, can be considered a liberal (though hardly an extremist).
But does that necessarily make him part of the elite? Daschle hails from the agrarian state of South Dakota. He was the first in his family to graduate from college and served in the Air Force.
Contrast that to Bush, who, despite his cowboy posturing, cannot disguise the fact that he hails from a politically prominent New England family and was born into wealth and privilege. The concept of “elite” knows no political bounds.
Also, while it is convenient to trot out the image of a bearded history professor spewing Marxist propaganda in some Ivy League classroom, this stereotype ignores a larger truth.
First, not all elite opinion is uniform. Lawrence Summers, the free market economist who serves as president of Harvard University, is a frequent target of criticism from fellow academics Noam Chomsky and Cornell West.
Secondly, not all elite opinion is even leftist. Rightwing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institute are every bit as out-of-touch as university campuses.
About the only thing the elites do share is a distance from ordinary America.
Elites tend to think in and work with concepts, ideals and theories. The practical component, the actual doing of what they advocate is often left to underlings or subordinates … in short, people who aren’t them.
When a Chomsky or a Milton Friedman makes a bold proclamation about what policies the country should adopt, it is never his dollars at stake, but rather someone else’s.
Thus, a perpetual struggle exists between those who would give orders (no matter how benevolent those orders purport themselves to be) and those who are left to take them.
And, as long as the media continues to function as its own branch of the elite, setting an agenda based solely around readership, ratings and the personal raves and rants of renegade reporters, the struggle will continue indefinitely.
After witnessing these deep divides, the temptation might arise to force some kind of consensus or uniform code of conduct. This is not only implausible, but quite irresponsible too.
Being in a position of power means taking on responsibilities and considerations not shared by those outside the loop.
Trying to think as an outsider therefore negates these added dimensions and simply will not translate into strong and effective leadership.
Instead, the most effective way for a workable peace to be achieved is for the media to reassert their rightful roles as conduits.
Rather than pursue their own self-serving agendas, the media should aim to explain inside policy and elite thought to the outsiders and let the concerns of the ordinary men and women be known to those in power.
Journalists, as much as politicians, have the power to be uniters and dividers in this country and should exercise that power responsibly.