On the Sidelines of the Great Schism

Public opinion polls rarely tell us anything we didn’t already know, but it’s nice to have our observations corroborated and quantified. So it was with a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, which shows that right and the left increasingly hate one another these days.
According to Pew’s research the number of Republicans with a “cool” attitude toward Democrats has risen 14 percent over the past two years, with most them being “very cold.” Since 2016 there’s been a 16 percent increase in the Democrats’ coolness toward the Republicans. Some 55 percent of Republicans now say the Democrats are “immoral,” and 47 precent of Democrats say the same thing about Republicans. Some 63 percent of Republicans think Democrats are “unpatriotic,” and they’ll be glad to know that only 23 percent of Democrats say the same about them, although that might be because many Democrats have the same flag-waving and jingoistic definition of patriotism as many Republicans.
You’ve probably already noticed the trend, if you ever venture to talk about politics at the local tavern or church potluck or the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The animosity has always been there, and we old-timers who can recall the ’60s have seen worse, but there’s no shaking a sense that it’s gotten worse in the last two or three years.
President Donald Trump obviously has a lot to do with it. He deliberately infuriates Democrats, knowing how it endears him to Republicans, and has normalized name-calling and mud-slinging and a Manichaean worldview, with both sides now playing by the new rules. He didn’t create the divide, though, just took shrewd advantage of it.
Back in the ’60s there were only three channels on your television and a few radio stations that would deliver a few minutes of minutes of strictly factual news, but for a long while people have been able to tune into whatever they want to hear. If you want to hear that those damned Democrats are a bunch of perverted dope-smoking hippies who hate God and while folks and America and everything there plenty of programs purveying that. If you’re more inclined to hear that those awful Republicans are a bunch of rich-off-the-poor racists who hate gay people because they’re repressed homosexuals and are intent on destroying the environment, you won’t have any trouble finding it.
The schism is rooted in geographic and demographic and cultural economic realities, too. All the polls, including the reelection results, show that the right is mostly inland and rural and religious and anxious that a fast-changing economy will leave them behind along with the rest of the culture. The left is mostly coastal and urban and secular and firmly convinced that with its smart phones and great and unmatched wisdom it can lead America to a more socialist and sexually liberated Utopia. Those fine folks at the Pew Research Center also found that majorities in both parties say they don’t share even the non-political values of their counterparts, and can’t even agree on the basic facts of what they’re arguing abut. Acrimonious arguments about everything from guns to gay wedding cakes to health care are bound to result, even without all this media fanning the flames.
These days we’re watching all this from the sidelines, where we tend to get along with everybody well enough. We’ve considered ourselves staunch conservative Kansas Republicans since way back when Trump was a registered Democrat and contributing to the Clintons, so we have no argument to make when our more newfangled Republican friends fulminate about the damned Democrats and their unabashed socialism and often outright hostility toward God-fearing and gun-toting and heterosexual white folk. When our Democrat friends fulminate about Trump we rarely have any argument to make, on the other hand, as he also offends our old-fashioned conservative Kansas Republican sensibilities, and we don’t entirely disagree that there’s some racism and sexism and at least some measure of homophobia involved in his appeal.
Sometimes we’re asked to pick a side, but we assert our right as Americans not to, and for now that seems to work. We’re trying to keep everything civil with the dear friends we know to be good and patriotic people on both sides of the political divide, and we’re hoping it doesn’t turn out like the 1960s or the 1860s.

— Bud Norman

The Post-Gutenberg, Post-Truth Era

The Pew Research Center has released its annual assessment of the state of the news media, and it should come as a surprise to no one that it finds the news business in sorry shape.
Newspaper circulation is down to the lowest level since 1940, which was when they started keeping track and there were 200 million fewer people in America, and naturally revenues are also falling. Viewership of local television newscasts and the over-the-air network broadcasts are also down, although revenues have somehow improved. Cable news viewership and revenue rose, but only slightly.
There’s no reason to expect any improvement in the near future, as by now the decline seems self-perpetuating and accelerating. Lower revenues lead to smaller newsrooms putting together less news, usually at a steeper subscription price, which in turn leads to further declines in readership and more layoffs and even less news. There are already large American cities such as Pittsburgh and Birmingham that have no major newspapers at all, and we expect there will be more of them in the next few years.
Those who regard the media as enemies of the people might be pleased to hear it, but they should be careful what they wish for. With no one keeping a close eye on your city hall and county building and state capitol the people inside will probably be more tempted by whatever corrupt bargains come their way, and you won’t be able to object to their dumbest decisions until after they’re a done deal. You’ll cast your votes to replace the bums without knowing much about who you’re putting in. Like it or not, you need the news, and you’ll miss it when it’s not around.
Go ahead and say the news media is in decline because of its dishonest “fake news” ways, and figure you can get your information straight from President Donald Trump’s “twitter” feed, but that’s bunk. Most people who go into journalism are left-leaning, to be sure, and that sometimes affects their reporting in infuriating ways, but they very rarely just make things up, are usually quickly caught by their colleagues when they do, and an astute reader can discern the double-sourced facts according to their own bias. In most cases, it’s more reliable than Trump’s “tweets.” The rapid decline in journalism’s fortunes, we believe, mostly isn’t the journalists’ fault.
Way back in the Gutenberg era when we broke into the newspaper racket as college dropout copy boys, newspapers were thick and cost a mere 25 cents, and it was a grand and essential bargain at that price. Your daily newspaper was the only way to know where your favorite baseball team was in the standings, how that hot stock pick you bought into fared on the markets, what the weekly weather forecast was forecasting, and there was “Peanuts” and “Blondie” and crossword puzzles and coupons worth well more than 25 cents. Newspapers were black and white and read all over, even by those apolitical types who don’t much care what’s going on at City Hall or in Washington, D.C., although they’d occasional read the stories as well.
This infernal internet machine changed all that, for both better and worse. It provides access to The Wall Street Journal and New York Times and Washington Post and a wide variety of publications closest to whatever local story has become national news, and you can read well considered opinions worth considering from across the political spectrum, along with all sorts of far-right and far-left conspiracy theorizing that might just turn about to be true, but the marketplace is so widely dispersed that profits are hard to come by for even the best of the news providers. There will always be a certain demand to know what’s going on, but it’s hard to build a business model on it.
We’ve also noticed there’s less demand to know what’s going on in the big, wide world. People seem more interested in what’s on their text messages and the Facebook pages they’re constantly looking at on their hand-held mesmerizers, and care less than ever about what’s going at city hall or the county building or in Washington, D.C. ¬†Even talk radio is seeing a decline in ratings, and Trump is fuming that that his “Twitter” following has been cut down by the period attempts to eliminate “bots.” Perhaps that has something to do with the rather dull prose and apparent biases of so many journalists, but it’s also a failure of America’s educational system and our self-absorbed culture, and the politicians who encourage cynicism about the very possibility of objective truth aren’t helping.
Keep your eye on the news, we urge, and don’t be such a cheapskate that you won’t pay an inflation-adjusted price to keep it going. Be skeptical about whatever you read, whether it’s in a newspaper or internet publication or a presidential “tweet.”

— Bud Norman

Lies, Damned Lies, and Polls

We’re not so cynical we would ever doubt a pollster, but we’re always suspicious of the folks who write their headlines. Consider the case of the latest numbers from The Washington Post and ABC News, which are neatly summarized as “Poll: Clear majority supports nuclear deal with Iran.”
One will momentarily assume that the “deal with Iran” the “clear majority supports” is the one currently being negotiated in Switzerland, which is probably what the headline writer intended, but on an another moment’s reflection one will realize that no one yet knows what that deal will look like. The lead paragraph is slightly more helpful, noting that “By a nearly 2 to 1 margin, Americans support the notion of striking a deal with Iran that restrict’s the nation’s nuclear program in exchange for loosening sanctions,” but it still implies that the deal being negotiated in Iran will look like that, and there is reason to doubt it.
In the very next paragraph, even the Post’s reporters acknowledge that the survey “also finds few Americans are hopeful that such an agreement will be effective. Nearly six in 10 say they are not confident that a deal will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons …” Apparently a large portion of the “clear majority” that supports a “nuclear deal with Iran” does so despite a belief that it won’t prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, or oppose the deal that is being concocted but felt obliged to endorse the theoretical deal that they don’t think is likely, but in either case it makes public support for the administration’s dealings less enthusiastic than the headline suggests.
Still, the Washington Post grimly warns that 47 percent of Republicans also supported that hypothetical deal where everything works out fine and that “the split contrasts with Republican lawmakers’ widespread backing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech deriding the potential deal in early March before a joint session of lawmakers.” Those recalcitrant Republicans will be heartened by the next paragraph, though, where the Washington Post is obliged to admired that “Popular sentiment among Republicans is more in line with GOP lawmakers on the issue of whether Congress should be required to authorize any deal with Iran.” Citing a Pew Research Center survey, the reporters note that 62 percent of the public — not just Republicans — believe Congress should have final say on the matter.
As we write this the deal is still be negotiated, and there might not be a deal at all, and of course it remains to be seen if the reliably untrustworthy Iran government will abide by anything that is agreed to, and the Secretary of State is saying it all depends on what Allah is willing, but we share the widespread skepticism that it will work out quite the like deal that the “clear majority” supports. We’ll eagerly await the polling on the deal that actually transpires, and expect that even The Washington Post will have a hard time making it seem supportive of the administration. The poll taken just after Iran announces that it has a bomb will probably even be worse, but maybe by that time there will be a Republican administration to take the blame.

— Bud Norman