We're not political pundits (though the job sure does look easy enough) here at the Cheese Fry offices in beautiful downtown North Hollywood. But it seems to us that Washington has gotten a lot more rancorous in its petty partisanship. We certainly hope this isn't a case of some lame, crotchety "things were better in the old days" sensibility, but it could be.
From where we see it, this whole things seems to have gotten it's start with the Republican witch hunt of Bill Clinton. For a variety of reasons that far smarter people have filled books with, the right-wing hated Clinton and everything he stood for. But it wasn't enough to hate him. Clinton was vilified. And so we got a years-long investigation by Ken Starr that changed focus and direction as needed to find a scandal, any scandal, to stick to Clinton. The president is certainly a man of many errors and omissions - all Lewinsky-related decisions made by him are shocking at best and shameful at worst - as most presidents are. But few presidents ever had to contend with so rabid and relentless an attack from the opposition. That he was ultimately impeached for lying in a deposition, to us, hardly counts as a "high crime or misdemeanor." That he was accused of this Congress made for some very thick irony. You needed hip waders to get through the river of moral hypocrisy and phony sanctimony flowing down the Capitol hallways.
And then George W. Bush got elected. Which put the shoe on the other foot. You won't get any argument from us about the criminal, reprehensible decision Bush made to invade Iraq on the basis of lies and double-speak. But just as Clinton was demonized by the right, so too was Bush demonized by the left (although with a lot less fervor and organization - there simply is no Rush Limbaugh for the Democratic side of things, try as Al Franken did). Bush's simple-minded ways and aw-shucks personality were a particular source of ridicule, which in some ways proved the right's point - if you're not an Ivy League grad with a string of fancy degrees, then you're beneath contempt. The idea of treating the office of the president with respect and dignity was but a distant memory of some golden era that ended with the 1992 victory of Clinton.
Now we're come full circle with Barack Obama replacing Bush. The Republicans, sore losers in so many ways, have predictably brought out the knives to slice and dice the president as often as possible. Add to this parisan mix the powderkeg racial issue and you've got some real open hatred. It's not enough to oppose Obama's policies. No, you need to claim he's not even a U.S. citizen or spread rumors that he's a Muslim sleeper agent or suggest that he's a communist in a world where there's really only two countries left that are truly Communist-run. (Most of these folks wouldn't know communist doctrine if you gave them a copy of Das Capital.)
The Cheese Fry was particularly appalled by Joe Wilson's shout of "You lie" during the president's first State of the Union, treating a solemn event as some kind of South Carolina pep rally. Was Wilson shamed or sanctioned? Nope. He was a hero of the Republican party for daring to speak out. (We experienced a shocking moment of self-awareness when we realized that we probably wouldn't have been so outraged had someone shouted "You lie!" to Bush from the floor of Congress. Might we be just as hypocritical? Might we be part of the problem? In a word, yep.)
In other words, things seem to be getting worse.
It seems clear that national politics has become a zero-sum game. I can't win if you win. Also know as, the only way I win is to be sure you lose. Compromise is now a dirty word and merrily blocking bills and votes has become a part of the Congressional job description. What's called a "dirty trick" by the minority is a "reasonable procedure" by the majority. The names and parties may change, but the offending behavior remains the same.
We place some of the blame on the economy. When people lose jobs and worry about their future, they're quick to get riled up and look for someone to blame. An aloof, African-American president who talks in flowery sentences and is so unlike the vast majority of Americans (which we think is, like, a good thing) is one place to start.
But we think the real culprit is the partisan media.
In the days of Kennedy and Carter and Reagan, you were stuck with the local newspaper and the three networks. You didn't hear the fringe criticisms and the conspiracy theories and the wack jobs and the rumors. You got the dry facts and maybe a few clips of protesters in the streets. When Walter Cronkite dared to speak out against Vietnam, it was a watershed moment that even LBJ could see.
My how things have changed in a world full of websites and radio stations and cable networks. If you have an opinion, we have a forum just for you. Objective journalists need not apply.
The big bully is, of course, the right-wing loudmouths. Rush Limbaugh often seems to have a stranglehold on his listeners, every opinion taken as fact, every misstatement and exagerration assumed to be gospel. Glenn Beck is a new member of this movement, hooting and hollering from his Fox News soap box, but becoming a force to be reckoned with. But let's not just cast aspersions on Fox News and right-wing AM talk radio. The media partisanship works both ways. The Cheese Fry loves to hate Fox News which so shamelessly slants every single story, but then one day we watched some MSNBC programming with a critical eye. One could argue that Keith Olbermann is just as much a bully as Beck or Limbaugh, mixing opinion with news, making no effort to conceal his agenda. There's a smug arrogance to Olbermann that is identical to Limbaugh: "If you don't know I'm right, you're stupid." At least Jon Stewart is up-front about his show being comedy first, news second.
This is apparently a growing problem in our fractured, niche media marketplace, where everyone can tune into someone who talks and thinks just like they do. This "echo chamber" effect keeps opposing views out and serves to reinforce partisan thinking. It's practically a form of brainwashing, cementing extreme opinion and casting every political question in an us-versus-them frame. It's why CNN, which continues to so quaintly cling to impartial, objective reporting, is struggling in the ratings. No one's interested in that. They want to get riled up and hear what dirty deeds the other side has done today. This unending inflaming of the people isn't helping. It's hurting.
And we'e not sure we can all change the channel.