Why We're So Divided (10/28/10)

Here is where I shall vent my spleen on whatever political topic might cross my mind on a given day. Comments or responses may be posted to whatever forum might be appropriate to that particular topic.

Why We're So Divided (10/28/10)

Postby Ferguson Foont » Thu Oct 28, 2010 11:48 am

Here on the eve of the eve of the Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive scheduled for Saturday, October 30 on the National Mall (BE THERE!!!), it might be useful to examine exactly where the insanity originated. It actually has an obvious cause that is never, ever mentioned anywhere except here on BKP, or by anyone except ol' Ferguson Foont.

Remember, something had to change somewhere to make us so polarized. Some blame it on the Vietnam War, but we've had controversial wars before. Some blame it on Nixon's "Southern Strategy," but pandering to bigotry was hardly an innovation in American politics. While these two things did tend to highlight the differences of opinion we inevitably experience, I do not believe that either of them created the increasing drift toward the extreme and intractable partisanship we see today, where Republicans are from Mars, Democrats are from Venus, and the scorched Earth of our political landscape lies in between.

Remember, throughout Vietnam and throughout the various administrations and congresses that succeeded it, there were still some moderates in power within Republican ranks. These are all gone now, every last one of them (with the whimsical exception of Arnold Schwartzeneggar, of all people). The Brookes, the Javitses, the Chaffees, the Dirksens, all these moderate sorts are extinct now. Anyone who thinks Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins is really a "moderate" is an idiot -- they vote with McConnell, Inhofe, et. al. more than 90% of the time.

The "moderates," if you can call them that, are all on the Democratic side, but these are not really "moderates." They are CONSERVATIVES by any standard, by any sense of that word we had over the past, oh, century or so before the last 20 years. Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and numerous House members stand significantly to the right of where Republicans like Arthur Vandenburg and Howard Taft, or even the old House minority leader Charlie Halleck, used to stand. The so-called "center" has moved from the middle of the road way out into the ditch that lies to the right of the right shoulder.

But Republicans -- ALL of them -- stand now even to the right of that. Democrats, particularly those few liberals/New Dealers that are left like me, obviously must be strident in our opposition to this headlong careen to the right. And thus the polarization.

But this change did NOT happen as a result of Vietnam, or Nixon, or indeed until much later. The change dates to the early '80s near the start of Ronald Reagan's tenure in office, when a little-known public official at a seldom-mentioned government agency made an almost totally unnoticed change to a fairly esoteric longstanding policy, and this has made all the difference. Please let me explain. The explanation may get a bit, ummm... dry, but try to muddle through it.

From the earliest days of broadcasting, our government has recognized the potential for harm that the systematic abuse of such a wide-ranging, almost universal informational media like radio (and that brand new oddity called "television") might present to our body politic. Therefore, just as commercial radio was beginning to become universally available, Congress passed something called "The Equal Time Rule," originally in the Radio Act of 1927 and then further refined and codified in the Communications Act of 1934.

There were several purposes for this law. One was to prevent broadcasters from censoring political advertisers, and another was to mandate that political ads are sold at the "most favored rates;" the lowest rates offered to any advertisers on any given outlet. The most important part of these measures, though, was to ensure that candidates for public office received "equal time." The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which had initiated the push to have these rules codified into the law, was the chief agency designated to enforce these rules. It had previously only dealt with such matters as licensing broadcasters in a manner to ensure that stations' radio signals did not interfere with one another.

This Equal Time rule worked well, and in 1949 it was expanded by the FCC in response to a report issued by the Commission. The expansion, called the "Fairness Doctrine," held that broadcasters licensed in the public interest must present all sides of controversial issues in a balanced manner (the Equal Time rule only pertained to political CANDIDATES, not political issues). The intent was to combat the increasingly biased influence introduced into broadcasting by the need of broadcasters to solicit advertising, and the threat that advertisers could suppress the reporting of facts potentially injurious, or even unflattering, to their industries.

This was not, however, codified into law at that time, but was merely a policy of the FCC and could only impact broadcast license renewals. Its use was upheld by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1969 which held that such regulation did not abrogate the First Amendment rights of broadcasters, but which also ruled that it was wholly voluntary for the FCC to enforce this rule -- it was not required by law that they enforce it. The rule remained in force from 1949 until 1981, and worked well, although toward the end of this period it began to be abused, as those on what was back then the extreme fringe right-wing of American politics began to ask for equal time to respond to purely scientific reports such as are presented on news reports and on shows like NBC's "White Papers" and PBS's "Nova," and not previously considered controversial.

Of course, Ronald Reagan won the election of 1980, perhaps our nation's biggest mistake up to that time, a mistake engineered by our oil companies who precipitated a crisis of "oil shortages" in 1979. This was despite the fact that every oil storage tank in America was filled to the brim to such an extent that oil tankers had no place to unload their cargo and so had to anchor offshore even as gas stations had nothing to sell and long lines queued up at those pumps that were open. Jimmy Carter was blamed for this, as the oil moguls intended (of course, Teddy didn't exactly help matters, but I digress...).

Anyhow, after Reagan was elected, he appointed Mark S. Fowler to be the Chairman of the FCC. This was particularly interesting to me because I knew Mark Fowler personally, having worked closely with him in the early 1970s when he was an associate at the communications law firm of Smith & Pepper. When I first started working with him one of the senior partners pulled me aside and told me, "Listen. YOU are in charge here on this case (I was only a paralegal). You report to ME, not to Mark. Don't let him intimidate you. He's a real idiot and I trust your judgment over his any day and twice on Sunday." He was indeed an idiot, VERY unknowledgeable not only of the law but of the specific case at hand, although he was quite personable and funny and not intimidating at all. Indeed, he was quite easy to work with.

Once Reagan appointed him to be FCC Commissioner, he immediately made it known that he would not enforce the Fairness Doctrine, and in 1985 he and a majority of the commissioners officially rescinded it. This allowed such relatively recent abominations as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News to flourish, and ensured that such matters as the proposal for "Medicare for All" never entered into the public's consciousness during the recent health care debate (at the behest of the sponsors of network newscasts, chiefly insurance and pharmaceutical firms).

The "reasoning," if you can call it that, behind the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine was that our broadcasting landscape was undergoing a fundamental change from an environment where only a few channels were available to one where more and more channels were made possible by the advent of cable. According to their arguments, this would ensure that all sides of every issue are covered even if some broadcasters only elect to tell one side of any given issue. Therefore there was no longer any reason to step, however lightly, on the First Amendment rights of broadcasters, because the opposing views would certainly be available elsewhere.

And this is what has led to the ever-increasing polarization of our electorate, where Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives both, are finding fewer and fewer areas of agreement and are becoming ever less willing to compromise. Where before everyone, everywhere, was exposed to BOTH sides of EVERY issue if they were exposed at all by their use of news media to the issue, now we only watch programs that agree with and reinforce our existing views. Liberals never watch Fox and stick to MSNBC; conservatives wouldn't recognize Keith Olbermann if they saw him on the street but think of Rush Limbaugh as a true leader and hang on his every word.

Both sides now increasingly distrust the other, because the things the other side says are constantly contradicted (and frequently ridiculed) by the people they trust. Their narrow, half-informed views are constantly reinforced to the extent that the notion arises that to believe otherwise is heresy. We are increasingly falling into two distinctly separate schools of thought, and never the twain shall meet, and it's all because neither side is ever exposed to the views of the other.

So, it was that little change to one little policy of a small independent commission in the Federal government that has caused all this trouble, all this paralysis, all this, well, now violence. Some Democrats, notably Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi and Jeff Bingaman (along with some others), have been pushing lightly in the background for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. Because of the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1969 case "Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC," this would not require the passage of any new law but only action by a majority of the FCC commissioners to accomplish. Republicans, led by John Thune of South Dakota and Mike Pence of Indiana, are trying to enact a law forbidding the FCC from enforcing such a rule and denying any funds to do so, and perennially try to put this anti-Fairness measure into the FCC's annual funding authorization as an amendment.

But anyone who decries the increasing extremism and declining collegiality of our politics in the United States need to understand that when you are never exposed to views with which you disagree, you are unlikely to understand those opposing views and likely to harden in your opposition, and it was only the Fairness Doctrine that allowed us such exposure.

And they also ought to understand that "fairness" is NOT a four-letter word, as Republicans would have them believe, and that it might even be good for them as individuals to experience a bit of it.
Republicans whine and Republicans bitch: "Our rich are too poor, and our poor are too rich."
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Ferguson Foont
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