Pressing Issues

It’s Not Just Voters Driving Polarization

As the GOP actively tries to dismantle our democracy with violence and fascistic laws, the media would have us believe it’s just politics as usual. And it's only deepening the divisions in the country.

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The next American election will take place in a fraught, terrifying space that few in traditional media acknowledge exists.

Democratic candidates, for offices as innocuous as library boards, are watching their workplaces defaced, threatened, and defunded by right-wing conspiracists. Election workers, most of them non-partisan and almost all of them elderly volunteers who’ve done their job without incident for decades, are being harassed by fascist groups fomented online. Republican candidates, never prone to friendliness toward the media, now openly target reporters and editors who’ve lived in and reported about their own communities their whole lives.

It is a wave of terror, a churning mass of vicious lies and dirty tricks, coming straight for American democracy.

But when we read about it at all, we mostly read about “polarization.”

We read about what has “happened to us.” We read about “division” that is “on the rise” and we read about what we “have become.”

NPR recently covered a survey of views by opposing political parties thusly: Republicans and Democrats don’t like each other anymore.

Since 2016, growing numbers of people in each party simply don’t like people in the other party. They increasingly see people with differing political views as closed-minded, dishonest, unintelligent and even immoral.

They “increasingly see.” Americans are “increasingly negative.” Unmentioned, in any of the story’s 500-plus words, is why. Why are America’s two major parties estranged from one another? What is that division about? What issues, what topics, what critical policies are involved?

And most important of all: Who benefits from this deep division, this intense polarization? Who uses it, over and over, to hold money and power?

To describe American politics today, legacy media has developed a shorthand that is both painfully familiar and worryingly obtuse: “Disinformation” is to blame for Americans’ feelings of distance from one another. They do not mention from whence the “disinformation” comes, but it comes from one direction and one direction only.

Every politician from time immemorial has picked the story they wanted to tell, but the GOP has been unrelenting in its depiction of Democrats as immoral, evil, aligned with anti-American forces. To Republicans, Democrats are people who hate the flag, hate the police, are desperate to give away (white) America’s tax money to people (i.e., Black people, immigrants, women) who the GOP believe haven’t earned it.

Over and over and over on 24-hour propaganda networks, ranging from drive-time talk radio that masquerades as news, to free “newspapers” sent unsolicited to every home, to the behemoth that is the Fox News ecosystem, people are told that Democrats are willing to murder babies, force children to question their gender, teach anti-white literature and undermine the United States military.

None of which, it should not have to be said, is remotely true. But this kind of vile conspiracy-mongering appears side-by-side with unfiltered feeds from Republicans’ campaign stops, guest editorials from the GOP’s elder statesmen, and “interviews” with activists pretending to be concerned parents.

It creates a morass of “who really knows” information, just enough of it hewing close to reality to obscure how much is off the rails.

This is, ideally, where a truly objective, outsider-perspective non-partisan press would intervene, clearly stating from whence the disinformation, the division, the polarization, the radicalization all come. This isn’t a case where both parties have views on progressive taxation. This is a situation where one party is telling its followers the other is objectively evil and should be violently overthrown by any means necessary, and the other party is asking, not always politely, for them to knock it off.

There is a long history here of which even the greenest reporters are fully aware. Republicans began this campaign of terror in the last century, riling up backlash to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which turned many white Democrats sour on their party. Republican president Richard Nixon and his GOP successors captured the American South in a deliberate strategy to stoke racial resentment, outlined by professional operative Lee Atwater in a 1981 interview:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—–r, n—–r, n—–r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n—–r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—–r, n—–r.”

By the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan in the White House promising to respect “state’s rights” and demonizing welfare recipients, it was well understood that if you had racial animus you belonged in the GOP. And that party was willing to spin stories of nefarious Democratic activity in order to keep people on its side. 

Hating the Clinton family after the Arkansas governor became president was a cottage industry. While Bill Clinton ceaselessly sought common ground with Republicans, they pursued him with a vengeance that also encompassed his wife and then-teenage daughter. By the time Hillary Clinton ran for president, she was doing so awash in media that described her family as not just corrupt, but murderous.

Former president George W. Bush’s advisors Michael Gerson and David Frum and Rick Wilson, now all warm-and-fuzzily remembered as relics of a more genteel age, spent the early 2000s calling anyone insufficiently jazzed about murdering Muslims an America-hating traitor.

These people got very, very rich off a culture of loathing liberals, immigrants, women, anyone who questioned their glib mockery of the poor or the vulnerable. Republicans and their aligned cohort made millions of dollars from talk-radio hate shows, from online gold-standard scams, from podcasts and ads and pay-to-play publishing instant “bestsellers” that gamed the middle-ground media they decried.

At every turn, independent media, liberal media, Democratic activists, just plain ordinary folks on the internet were telling anyone who would listen that putting Ann Coulter on a magazine cover as if she were a stand-up comedian would lead to nowhere good. It would lead to political violence by the people the GOP inspired. It would lead to Sarah Palin, running as John McCain’s vice-president, by telling people Barack Obama “palled around with terrorists.”

It would lead to Donald Trump, winning the GOP nomination by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, and winning the election by bragging about grabbing women by the pussy.

And since then, in the six years since Trump’s rise and the indisputable, above-board turn of the Republican Party toward fascism, the corporate media in this country has failed to even describe the problem at hand, much less advocate for any kind of definitive fix.

Instead American political journalism exonerated the powerful, reporting on the harm caused by the GOP without once naming the actors involved.

To try to provide balance, to attempt to “reach” the supporters of Trump, they put GOP operatives on their editorial boards. Ran their guest columns. Booked them for their panel discussions and ideas festivals. In some cases, they sold entire news organizations to them.

The mainstream press laundered their “ideas”: Government programs disincentivize work, public schools cannot function, health-care workers are deliberately lying about COVID, and undocumented immigrants directly threatened U.S. sovereignty. It was all just diverse political views, legitimized and acceptable so long as it was talked about without a single curse word.

Critical Race Theory “became a flashpoint.” Transgender people’s existence “spurred debate.” Questions are “raised,” all on their own, and the questioners never named, much less answered. 

Even on the topic of free and fair elections, the talking heads can’t bring themselves to say the word “Republican” when talking about a threat to democracy that comes directly from the party of Trump. Witness this absurd, tormented construction from NPR’s Joel Rose: 

[Experts say] there is still time to de-escalate tensions before all hell breaks loose. But that would require our elected leaders to denounce violence before it is too late.

President Biden and Democratic governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, who are targeted for violence by the people Trump riles up online, have been pretty clear in telling MAGA nation to stop their “stolen election” cause. Biden gave an entire speech in which his central point was that we should trust in America’s institutions and the rule of law that has governed us for decades. It’s only GOP leaders, through their mouthpieces on Fox News and Newsmax and OANN, who continue to stoke the lie inspiring the violence.

The Associated Press views “division” in America as akin to a marital dispute, using this kind of cutesy construction to pretend that there’s any kind of debate over the 2020 election at all:

They frame “common ground” as somehow halfway between two positions, one of absolute fact, and one of paranoid, racist conspiracies that don’t pass the smell test. It’s unclear how those of us who aren’t immersed in YouTube videos and message boards are meant to react to the idea of a murderous cult running the world. It’s unclear what, exactly, we are meant to do to bridge that particular divide.

In this sick and scared country, many have retreated to their bubbles, surrounding themselves with people certain the other side is their enemy — inhuman, un-American. Polls show roughly two-thirds of Republicans express doubts about the election.

So Carpenter and Abbas decided to navigate one of the tensest weeks in American memory together, as the Trump administration ended and Biden’s began. Abbas, who flirts with the QAnon conspiracy theory that a cabal of child-killing pedophiles runs the world, still desperately wanted to believe it wouldn’t happen. Carpenter could barely wait for the new president, one he believes is a man of character capable of leading the country off this dark and dangerous path.

One of those things is mildly debatable. The other is entirely untrue, a collection of slanders and nonsense created to prey on vulnerable minds and sow chaos and distrust. But the AP presents them side-by-side, as though they are equal, and doesn’t once directly identify the GOP’s role in supporting the QAnon fiction.

Corporate media’s refusal to identify Republicans as the problem is generally attributed to cowardice: They’re afraid of being called biased, of being attacked by Trump. Well, Trump has been calling for reporters to be put in cages for years now. The GOP has been fear mongering about the “liberal media” for longer than I’ve been alive. The critters who make up this country’s insurrectionist strike force routinely dox doctors who are trying to cure cancer. 

That ship’s sailed, and it’s flying an elephant flag.

So what are reporters to do in the face of this reality? First, be clear about who is saying what, who is doing what. It’s impossible to solve a problem we can’t even name, but it’s unconscionable to continue misinforming the public by blaming polarization for … itself.

Political differences in America are real, and divisions exist over real things: Whether Black people and queer people deserve full civil rights, whether the state can force someone to bear a child against their will, if free and fair elections should be honored according to the Constitution or violently overthrown by a bunch of noose-swinging window-smashing doomsday preppers.

Those differences matter, and they deserve to be properly identified before bewailing the way people just can’t chat civilly at the neighborhood picnic anymore. To look at the extreme radicalization of the Republican Party and conclude that the real problem is the estrangement between those Republicans and the Democrats, and that this estrangement happened on its own is ahistorical, blind in a way that begins to look not just lazy or scared but willful and indefensible.

The volunteer walking into a polling place to hand out ballots on election day, the child asking a librarian for a book about queer people to try to see themselves clearly, the doctors and nurses trying to keep COVID patients alive, all deserve the truth about “polarization.” They live its effects every day, as does every American, even those under the thrall of the Republican machine.

Republicans divided America. They did it over and over again, for years, and they did it to get rich and maintain power. They’re still doing it, every day, with memes and tweets and newsletters and ads. They’ll keep doing it as long as the corporate press keeps pretending they aren’t, and airily wondering how any of this happened to us at all.


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