Why Are We Letting Them Fool Us?

There's an entire industry that profits from exploiting political controversy and division. Why do we let them get away with it?

Earlier this month, I lamented the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much of anything in contemporary that doesn’t end up being politicized and turned into a red vs. blue, cultural conservative v. cosmopolitan, argument. In that particular case, the post was inspired by the then ongoing controversy over the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood. As I noted at the time, though, that was only the most recent example of a phenomenon that has seemingly become more common in recent years where people who disagree with each other about politics feel obligated to extend that argument into seemingly non-political areas. As I noted in that same piece, we saw something similar during the just-concluded NFL season over the fortunes of Denver Broncos Quarterback Tim Tebow.  As I said, it doesn’t strike me as a healthy development for either our politics or our culture, especially since it gives the impression that Americans have far less in common than they actually do. Taken to its logical conclusion, such divisions have the potential to leave America in the same shape it was in the 1850s, and we know where that led.

Along those same lines, friend of OTB and contributor at Hot Air, PJ Media, and elsewhere Jazz Shaw and I exchanged some thoughts about the extent to which our national obsession with everything political tends to blind us from the things that really matter. I reprint part of what he sent me with his permission:

You guys realize that a lot of people who disagree with you on ideology are your neighbors and they’re not trying to destroy America, right?

Every election is “the most important election in history.” Sadly, this one isn’t going to change anything, no matter who wins. There are no winners. Only losers. While I realize that this will fall on deaf ears for the vast majority, the current state of affairs is depressing beyond words and I can’t help but wonder if there might still be some way to turn it around.

If you give it a little thought you’ll realize that you are surrounded in your communities by real people. When it comes to politics, some of them may agree with you, some may disagree. They may register with the same party as you or with the other party. They may consider themselves to be “liberal” or “conservative” or the dreaded “independent.” Out of each group – in a real world setting – you’d be lucky to find half that could agree entirely on what those words even mean. But there is one thing you all have in common.

You’re all trying to get along. You’d like to do well in life. You’d like to have a good job and a good home

and a happy family. You may have different visions about the specifics of what the government at each level should be doing to get there, but there is one thing that the vast majority of you can take for granted. None of you are trying to destroy America. Nobody is trying to turn it into a completely socialist state sold out to Castro. And nobody is trying to establish a theocracy to take away the rights of minorities, gays, Muslims or women.

And yet, for those of us who tune in to political TV shows, web broadcasts, blogs and Twitter, you’d be tempted to think that the civil war was being fought in full flare. Everyone else is the enemy. Every move they make, every comment from a spokesperson, every broadcaster from a network perceived as being “on the enemy side” is an attempt to destroy America. Far, far too many of us live in an echo chamber of those who nod their heads and agree that “the other side” is trying to drive the rest of us into extinction.

Nonsense.

It’s all a game. And if you’re taking part in it you are one of millions of pawns who have been sucked into a battle which does you no good and only profits a handful of people who stand to benefit from an ideological victory. You are not the winners even if your “side” wins. Everyone loses.

Barack Obama isn’t trying to turn the nation into Cuba and destroy the Catholic Church. The eventual GOP nominee will not be trying to subjugate women and establish a theocracy. Nobody is trying to destroy the other half of the country. But there are a handful of movers and shakers in politics, the mainstream media and their followers in the social media who make a living (at one degree or another) from supporting such a conflict.

They are the only ones profiting. Everyone else loses. You can pick any divisive issue of the day, be it on social issues, national security or the economy, and the clean sheets of each are the same. It isn’t us against them. It’s us against us. And we all lose. We’re getting played for suckers and we’re letting them do it every day.

I’ve been feeling this way myself for quite awhile now. After watching more election cycles than I care to count, I can honestly say that there really is nothing new under the sun. The political battles we’re fighting in 2012 are the same ones we were fighting in the 90s, which were the same ones we were fighting in the 80s. Heck, to be honest, the political battles we’re fighting today aren’t any different from the ones that were being fought in 1789. To the extent things have changed, it’s been because the world outside the United States has changed, not because of anything that’s happened domestically. Republicans still talk about free markets and limited government, even if they never actually govern in a manner designed to promote those ideas once they have power. Democrats still talk about “fairness” and equality, even though it’s rather obvious that what they’re actually doing is advancing the agendas of the interest groups that make up their coalition. The only thing that’s really changed is that we seem to be fighting louder and longer now than we used to, and for that you can thank the so-called “new media.”

There are many good things that can be said about the fact that there are now three cable news channels, talk radio, countless political news and analysis sites, even more countless numbers of political blogs on both the left and the right, not to mention social media outlets on which politics is (for lack of a better word) discussed on a daily basis. We are most assuredly better off today than we were when the only sources of information were the three broadcast networks and local newspapers. At the same time, though, it’s fairly clear that most of these media outlets make their money by appealing to extremism and alarm-ism of one form or another. Fox News Channel viewers get Sean Hannity and Bill O”Reilly. MSNBC viewers get Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz. What neither one of them get, though, is a genuinely balanced and dispassionate view of the issues of the day. It grabs viewer attention, and it sells advertising space, but it also contributes to the “us v. them” attitude that seems to predominate in politics on both sides of the aisle today. It’s great for the political pundits and for the politicians who profit from waving the political bloody shirt, but it doesn’t strike me as being at all healthy for our body politic.

Extremism, paranoia, and conspiracy theories have long been a part of American politics, for example, but they were generally confined to the fringes. We now seem to be living in a world where they’ve become more or less mainstream. We’ve had a former Speaker of the House suggesting that the President shares a “Kenyan, anti-colonialist worldview,” whatever that means. The most popular conservative commentator out there said three years ago that he hoped the President, and by logical extension the nation, turned out to be a failure. And now we have candidates for President repeating utterly false accusations and claiming that an education plan is actually a plot to indoctrinate Americans and turn them away from religion. It’s all silly and absurd, and yet people believe it because it fits into the world that they’ve chosen to live in.

Jazz continues:

Go outside. Talk to your neighbors. Look at the problems you have in common and the various ideas for fixing them. Working together we might actually get something done. Pretending that we are two competing armies, each bent on the destruction of the nation in the eyes of the other, is getting us nowhere. Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s getting us closer to the edge of the cliff.Let’s stop being suckers. Let’s stop playing for the two team captains who have, in the end, no interest in helping anyone but themselves. In reality, Left and Right, Conservative and Liberal, Red and Blue… they are but shadows of each other with differing theories of how to make things better. As with all things, the real answers will probably be found in a combination of the best solutions from each camp proposed for the common good.

There are a relative handful of people in this country who are focused on a massive, world changing football game. The only purpose of this game is to win the next election and control the most seats in government. None of it has a damn thing to do with actually providing the best path toward the future for the general public. It’s all a dodge. Don’t be part of it. We can do better. And if we don’t?

If we don’t, then we’re never going to get around to solving the problems that this country faces, and we’re going to go further down the road of division and phony, useless partisan battles. That may be good for the pundits, and for the corporate parents of Fox, MSNBC, and the radio stations that broadcast talk radio, but I have to wonder what good it is for the rest of us. This isn’t an argument in favor of the agenda of the left or the right, which I would submit is an imperfect way to described the variations in political belief in the United States to begin with. It’s an argument that we’re all falling for a false narrative by letting ourselves be taken in by the arguments of those who want to divide us into left and right, Republican or Democrat. The truth of the matter is that neither side in this debate has anything other than their own self-interest in mind when they act, and the one thing that helps them the most is to create conflicts where they don’t really exist.

There are millions of people in this country who don’t spend their time reading, writing, or commenting on political issues like most of the people likely to read this post do. Instead of watching MSNBC or Fox, they’re helping their kids with homework or going to their ball games. Instead of obsessively Tweeting about the latest pointless political controversy they’re watching a movie or a television show. They’re the ones who watch American Idol instead of Rachel Maddow, and who are more likely to visit ESPN.com than The Huffington Post.

Maybe they’re the ones who have it right. Maybe those of us who obsessively follow politics and get emotionally invested in political campaigns that don’t even impact us directly are the ones who are being taken for suckers. Like Jazz said, there is an entire political-media industry out there that is invested in the idea of stoking controversy and conflict on a daily basis. Some of them do it because it helps increase ratings and advertising revenue. Some of them do it because it’s an easy way to gain political power and influence. Whatever their motives are, though, they surely aren’t interested in what the average American worries about on a daily basis.

So why are we letting them fool us?

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Shorter Doug: Both sides do it.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    A classic bit of Broderism from Jazz Shaw who presumably is some sort of conservative and is trying to rationalise what is largely a product of conservative activism. Of course it matters whose elected. Does anyone really suggest that had Al Gore become president in 2001 we’d have invaded Iraq or massively cut income taxes? Just because there’s money in it doesn’t mean the issues (which Shaw trys to turn into absurd propositions) are not real and substantive. This upcoming election probably is more important than many. Certainly the heightened polarity of the country provide opportunities for people to make money. And generally speaking it was the right that first spotted the full potential on talk radio and at Fox News and while Democrats have responded they are still not generally as good as the right who are unquestionably more adept at playing on the fears of their base than are Democrats. This may say more about the respective bases but that’s another issue. So yes it’s deplorable that politics have been turned into a circus (let’s face it Republicans have contributed by running a huge carnival nominating process) but it’s where we are and just because of its fatuous side it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paying attention because when you stop you find idiots trying to push foreign objects into women’s vaginas.

  3. walt moffett says:

    Why because they validate our belief something is wrong with the world and there is a simple answer. In return, we reward them with ratings, web hits, book purchases, etc.

  4. Herb says:

    Shorter Doug: Both sides do it.

    Yeah, but honestly….that’s the only fault I find here. (Sorry, Doug, but Al Sharpton doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Hannity or O’Reilly. They’re all clowns…but Sharpton works for the circus with the mangy lions and the ripped parking lot tent while Hannity and O’Reilly are Barnum and Bailey’s. They’re not on the same level, or even close.)

    For what it’s worth, anyone who voted for “There’s no Red America and Blue America” Obama has already internalized this “lesson” long ago. Whoever Republicans vote for this year….you can bet it’s not going to be “We’re the United States.” Nah, not when there’s a “War on Religion” or “class warfare,” or cheap “us versus them” rhetoric.

  5. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    So why are we letting them fool us?

    Because they are good at pushing their product, and we happen to be the product’s target demographic.

    The false equivalency:

    …it’s fairly clear that most of these media outlets make their money by appealing to extremism and alarm-ism of one form or another. Fox News Channel viewers get Sean Hannity and Bill O”Reilly. MSNBC viewers get Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz. What neither one of them get, though, is a genuinely balanced and dispassionate view of the issues of the day. It grabs viewer attention, and it sells advertising space, but it also contributes to the “us v. them” attitude that seems to predominate in politics on both sides of the aisle today. It’s great for the political pundits and for the politicians who profit from waving the political bloody shirt, but it doesn’t strike me as being at all healthy for our body politic.

    Agreed but you miss the crucial contexts that one side’s media is much louder, and the same side’s body politic swallowing the tripe is much more numerous than the other not to mention much more willing to act* upon the falsities they believe.
    IOW, the left has no Rush Limbaugh.

    * – As in, vote, protest, get involved in party machinery.

  6. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Shoulda said: IOW, the left has neither Rush Limbaugh nor dittoheads.

  7. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Herb: Great minds think alike, Herb.

  8. @Gold Star for Robot Boy:

    You have Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, Ceny Uyger, Al Sharpton, Michael Moore, and Roseanne Barr. Just to name a few.

  9. Herb says:

    @Gold Star for Robot Boy:

    IOW, the left has no Rush Limbaugh

    Who needs a Rush Limbaugh when we’ve got a Sharpton?

    (What, Olbermann’s a nobody now that’s he’s on Current?)

  10. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Doug, please let me know if a Dem congressperson has ever publically disagreed with one of those lefty media types and then been forced, at political gunpoint, to grovel and apologize. That does happen with Rush.

  11. Herb says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I’ll see your Roseanne Barr and raise you a Kelsey Grammar.

    (Seriously? You’re reaching now….Roseanne Barr? It’s almost like you just listed a bunch of random, famous lefties. Which one of those guys has the influence on liberal politics that Rush does with conservatives? If you’re thinking about it, you’re not going to get the answer right. Because it’s a real quick: NONE!)

  12. grumpy realist says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Yes, but when was the last time that any of those individuals were able to force a top-level politician to retract an otherwise intelligent statement?

    Face it, Doug, your side is getting dragged off the cliff by the Rush Limbaughs and the Newt Gingrichs and similar.

    I do have a slight hope that Mr. Santorum will be picked as Republican nominee, lose to President Obama in a landslide, and the relatively sane portion of the GOP can shove the John Bircher types back under the rug. We on the left have our crazies, but I think we’re better at keeping them away from positions of power.

  13. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Herb:

    (Seriously? You’re reaching now….Roseanne Barr? It’s almost like you just listed a bunch of random, famous lefties. Which one of those guys has the influence on liberal politics that Rush does with conservatives? If you’re thinking about it, you’re not going to get the answer right. Because it’s a real quick: NONE!)

    This is one of those occasions when Doug reveals himself as…. dare I say it….a dittohead. Is this man seriously comparing Roseanne Barr (or any of the others for that matter) as a political influence remotely in the same league as Limbaugh or with the reach of Fox News.

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    Turner’s CNN was a bold experiment and was initially what it claimed to be – a cable news network. Cable news morphed into cable tabloids and like the newsprint tabloids began putting out infotainment instead of news always looking for a niche to bring is one or two percent, enough to make a lot of money. It was talk radio, specifically Limbaugh that started it. Initially FOX took it’s talking points from the RNC and some point that was reversed and the RNC now takes it’s talking points from FOX. This is dangerous because the main objective of FOX is still to make money.
    FOX has way more power than it should. Yes, FOX draws more viewers than the other cable networks combined but that still represents less the one and a half percent of the population. Unfortunately the politicians in the DC bubble all watch it.

  15. Herb says:

    @Brummagem Joe: “Is this man seriously comparing Roseanne Barr (or any of the others for that matter) as a political influence remotely in the same league as Limbaugh or with the reach of Fox News. ”

    Yes, apparently so. And here’s why this annoys me so…..Say Roseanne Barr or Ed Schultz or Al Sharpton or any of the z-listers on the list were drummed out of The Left ™. Do you really think the right would do the same to Rush Limbaugh as a show of fine manners and good sport? I don’t. The right burns it’s heretics (David Frum, Bruce Bartlett) not its warriors.

    Hell, the death of Birtherism isn’t even a year old. The Tea Party? Much diminished, but still alive. Sarah Palin? Still thinks she’s a kingmaker. Take care of all that….then we’ll talk about Roseanne Barr (Green Party Presidential Nominee) and Al Sharpton’s show on the least watched network on cable.

  16. JohnMcC says:

    Where I live a bunch of my neighbors decided that one of the big problems we had locally was that the gov’t was putting fluoride in the water and making our brains soft so we could be manipulated by the United Nations. They proceeded to get themselves elected to the county court and stopped that.

    So I repeat — the only thing an intelligent person can do is never, ever, for any reason vote for a Republican.

    I guess that makes me an extremist, Mr Mataconis? Man, I just hate to be such a disappointment to you.

  17. anjin-san says:

    You have Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, Ceny Uyger, Al Sharpton, Michael Moore, and Roseanne Barr. Just to name a few

    Please tell me you are kidding. I have never heard of two people on this list. Roseanne Barr has about as much influence on Democratic politics as my cat has on sunspot cycles. I could go on, but what’s the point?

    I hope someday you get over your raging intellectual laziness. You might become part of the solution. You have the raw materials, you just don’t use them.

    the left has no Rush Limbaugh

    Don’t be alarmed about all the good economic news folks…

  18. Hey Norm says:

    “…Every election is “the most important election in history.” Sadly, this one isn’t going to change anything, no matter who wins…”

    I’ve seen this meme a couple times and I think it must require some form of amnesia. If you seriously think there was no change in this country between 1/20/01 and 1/20/09 then you just weren’t paying very close attention. And if you don’t think that the Republican project since Reagan has had an effect then you have no business writing about politics.
    Are Republicans out to destroy the nation? Obviously not. Will their flawed ideology do damage? It has and it will continue to. Are the Democrats perfect? Obviously not. But I’ll take the last two Dems over the last 3 Republicans every time…because their Presidencies were better for the nation and the historical record proves it.
    This BOTH SIDES DO IT crap is the stuff of fools.

  19. Ron Beasley says:

    @JohnMcC: Fluoride is a bipartisan issue. I live on the left coast in the very blue Portland Oregon. We have never had fluoride in our water because every time the city has tried there has been a referendum to stop it. Not even the dirty hippies like fluoride.

  20. Septimius says:

    Hey Doug. Care for some cheese with your whine?

  21. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Fluoride? Feh.

    All the hipster conspiracy theorists have moved on to Agenda 21.

  22. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Herb:

    You underestimate the enormous influence of Al Sharpton, Herb. On Doug at least. Al Sharpton pops up so much I think Doug’s adopted him as a personal nemesis and logical failsafe. Ergo, no argument from a liberal can influence Doug because WE HAVE NOT YET APOLOGIZED for Al Sharpton. Until he receives a written apology from every member of the Left, detailing Sharpton’s sins in a full and legal manner, Doug will always claim “both sides do it” unto infinity.

    Also, Jazz Shaw, Republican party operative and campaign worker, is merely making an appeal for false moderation like he usually does. If he’s tired of politics as football, resigning from Hot Air might be a useful first step.

  23. Hey Norm says:

    Seriously. The difference between the Obama administration and McCain/Palin would have been inconsequential?
    The difference between Obama and Romney on Iran will not matter?
    James…I suggest you institute a drinking and posting policy.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    Hey Doug. Care for some cheese with your whine?

    You would do well to ask yourself that question, considering your own lamenting regarding Doug’s posts…

  25. John Peabody says:

    Damn, Doug, nice post. And I say this after reading the complaints above! Politics are a game, for the players and the fans. And I can confirm, nothing ever changes…

  26. Ron Beasley says:

    David Atkins:

    Most of time I think of conservative leaders as evil geniuses more than abject fools. Their voting base are generally oppressed rubes, delusional ideologues, racists or vicious sociopaths, but the leadership is generally very smart and cagey.

    But this primary season has made me seriously question that. From the standpoint of Republican interests, the last six months have been a carnival of comical incompetence by the GOP and its candidates. Whether or not one agrees with me and Digby that the birth control fight is better for the social conservative agenda long term, there’s almost no doubt that the sudden obsession with social issues far outside the American mainstream is a terrible thing for Republicans in the short term.

    Of course, the other possibility is that the leadership is still composed of evil geniuses, but they’ve almost completely lost control of their voting base, having overprimed its fury beyond the ability to manage. The career trajectory of one Karl Rove would seem to indicate as much.

    That in turn is partly a product of the fact that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the like require increasing doses of outrage to stay relevant to their audiences. Add in the fact that the conservative media machine is no longer the messaging machine for the GOP, but the GOP is rather the legislative arm of conservative media magnates, and it’s not exactly a surprise that we’ve reached a point of no return for Republican leadership.

    I think this is pretty accurate. Talk radio and FOX news have taken over the Republican party. As I said above are not as influential as many think.

  27. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: If you think those people have the center of gravity on the left exerted by Rush on the right,…

    well, that’s just stupid. Both sides aren’t always the same.

  28. Maybe they’re the ones who have it right. Maybe those of us who obsessively follow politics and get emotionally invested in political campaigns that don’t even impact us directly are the ones who are being taken for suckers. Like Jazz said, there is an entire political-media industry out there that is invested in the idea of stoking controversy and conflict on a daily basis. Some of them do it because it helps increase ratings and advertising revenue. Some of them do it because it’s an easy way to gain political power and influence. Whatever their motives are, though, they surely aren’t interested in what the average American worries about on a daily basis.

    So why are we letting them fool us?

    Them? WTF do you think you do every day?