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The Illogic of Anger and Extremism

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Just in case you have not been following political developments in the United States these days, the climate is as toxic as the flaky sub-prime mortgage assets that the greedy financial sector set up to fail. Today, extremism has become the political norm; anger the new aphrodisiac rationale for all things, and idiocy the prevailing sentiment that seemingly justifies all things no matter how insensitive and hateful. At the risk of sounding caustically cynical, I respectfully submit that in this age of unbelievable technology and innovation Americans have become "dumbed down" like never before.

The byproduct of this loud, noisy extremism is that talk radio and television stations like Fox News now make it a practice of stirring up anger among an increasingly agitated group of citizens, and with Republican leaders trying to blame Democrats for supposedly fanning the very flames of extremism that are bringing fury upon the Democrats. Law enforcement officials are seeing an upsurge in violence, including bullying of all kinds.

Just over two years into Obama's presidency, hyper-partisanship in the United States Congress is worse than ever, and the extremes of the political spectrum are gaining more and more power. There is no middle ground; no compromise just hard, staked out rigid positions fueled by the illogic of anger and extremism. The sad thing is that while America has always had its fair share of fringe lunatics, right wing crazies, and every assortment of gun-toting, cranks and zealots, now, due to the Internet and social media, these crack-pots, pushing a dangerous brand of idiocy, are becoming more and more mainstream and acceptable.

Years ago the infantile imbecilic utterings of today's celebrity extremists like Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck would have been dismissed as dotish laughable quackery and relegated to the festering garbage pile of history. Not so any more. Partisan media using cable news outlets and the Internet has become the incubators for extremism and anger. Unlike the bygone days of newspapers when people had to wait 24 hours to vent and demonize each other, now like-minded extremists can incite and malign each other all day long 24/7.

Well-meaning and conscientious Americans should be greatly concerned about these developments in the body politic. The inevitable products of this anger and extremism are fear and hate that will be used to promote and agitate blind, robotic partisanship. For example, since the election of Barack Obama as United States president in 2008 Republicans have moved to the extreme right and have embraced the vicious, racist and delusional rants of ultra-right wing radio and television talk show hosts because "bashing Obama" furthers their own narrow and reactionary agenda.

I am no student of physics but I do know that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. This is true of the political field. So while its easy as a Democrat to blame the Republicans for this dangerously charged political situation, and vise versa, both parties do not want to stop this because it is great politics to throw red meat to the party's faithful. And, in my view, there is yet another logical reason for the age of rage and idiocy this present, tech-savvy, texting generation are disenchanted with both of the traditional political parties.

Two recent political phenomenons will suffice to explain. President Barack Obama's political success and his winning the presidency was achieved in part to the stark generational contrast between Republican John McCain, a jaded, past-his-prime, aging out-of-touch politician, and himself, a young, fresh, technology inclined, nerdy new Liberal. The now generation identified, for the first time in decades, with a presidential candidate who mirrored their concerns and who spoke their language. But now the president and his party have failed to engage and energize this important base as they did in 2008.

Today too, the disenchantment that most independent voters feel with the Obama Administration is partly due to this climate of anger and extremism. But the fact of the matter is that historically the independent voter is an unhealthy mix of both Democrat and Republican. For example, on economic issues, as evidenced by recent polls, independents are closer to Republicans, hence their dissatisfaction and anger at President Obama.

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However, on social issues they are very close to the Democratic Party and its core values again as evidenced by their disgust with President Obama for not fighting for the Public Option in his healthcare legislation and his failure to close Guantanamo Bay detention center as he promised. Independents do not feel that they are given the best choice of the two political parties. But they do hate the partisan bickering and want government to work for the people.

Moreover, appeals for civility and less partisan bickering do not the 6 o'clock news make. So no matter the calls after the casualties of nasty, spiteful politicking, the public's attention span is so short that 48 hours later it's back to business as usual. Rage and extremism are the things that drive ratings and drag in big advertising dollars so do not look for the new political media complex to alter its behavior any time soon.

So facts do not matter. Character assassination, innuendo, double talk, hypocrisy and demonizing anybody who dares to dissent are the tools of successful news outlets and their sycophantic pundits, experts and journalists. Journalistic and informational relevancy is only important when both can be used to score cheap partisan and ideological points. Media bullying is the stuff that makes the news media look tough, fair and uncompromising. No competitor wants to deviate from this money-grubbing script by coming over to viewers as wimpish, soft, slow or too Goody Two Shoes.

The upshot is when someone's character is assassinated, motives questioned, and behavior demonized, everyone in the news media immediately rushes to judgment and the feeding frenzy begins. There is no time for fact checking or investigating. This herd mentality drives subjectivity in news reporting, sustains and fuels new rage and anger, obfuscates facts and murders truth. In retrospect comes hypocritical handwringing and sheepish commentaries about this being "a teachable moment" until the next salacious event comes around and the lunacy and illogic resumes with even more intensity.

For example, uproars like the Shirley Sherrod case are often used to explain this new kind of polarizing behavior. But this alone is not enough. It is a fact that violent divisions over race, class, religious persuasion, sexual orientation and war are nothing new in American politics and history. Still we can take comfort in the fact that today's political climate does not include lynchings or riots, as in the 1960s or 1930s, or canings on the Senate floor, as in the 19th century.

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What is different today is the emergence of an industry -- a political-media complex -- for which ideological conflict is central to its business model.

Fox News has soared and grown on the strength of ultra-right neo-conservative commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom fanned the Shirley Sherrod controversy on the strength of the misleading Breitbart video. They both rushed to pin the situation on the Obama Administration for Republican embarrassment capital. A simple Google search would have produced the entire video and proven that it was a very clumsy editing job.

It does not end there. On the left, MSNBC is trying to emulate the success of primetime partisanship by engaging in a low-level war with Fox News. Meanwhile, CNN, which has largely strived toward a neutral ideological posture, is battling steady relative declines in its audience. Media bosses want ratings that bring in megabucks while politicians from both side of the isle want improved favorability and name identification. It's not about news. So for now the lunacy, noise and anger will be with us.

 

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MICHAEL D. ROBERTS is a top Political Strategist and Business, Management and Communications Specialist in New York City's Black community. He is an experienced writer whose specialty is socio-political and economic analysis and local (more...)
 

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