Tuesday, September 26, 2006

How partisan is too partisan?: Framing the Pajamas Media panel discussion 

I am in Washington, and accordingly will attend this evening's Pajamas Media event at the National Press Club. The topic will be "How partisan is too partisan?", a panel discussion devoted to deconstructing the increasingly shrill political discourse in this country.

Apart from eating no food so that the free booze will have an immediate and dramatic impact on my wit, I prepared by buying and reading the first 20 pages of Lanny Davis' just-released book, Scandal: How "Gotcha" Politics Is Destroying America. Since Scandal seems to be all about the topic at tonight's event, and since Davis has been known to engage quite reasonably with conservatives, may I suggest that Pajamas Media would have done well to secure him as a surprise guest. Let's see if they did.

Davis, in his introduction, proposes four causes for the intensely personal attacks that have supplanted what used to be more substantive disagreements between the parties. After acknowledging that personal attacks have a long and storied history in American politics, Davis distinguishes partisanship today:

Today's version of the post-Watergate scandal culture is different, however, in one significant and unprecedented way: its far greater destructive power. This unfortunate power is derived from four key changes that occurred post-Watergate in the last quarter of the twentieth century -- changes in journalistic, legal, technological and cultural attitudes and rules of the game that had been previously understood by politicians and the public alike...

The first of the four changes were the post-Watergate rules and incentives governing investigative journalism, especially when related to scandals. These were heavily influenced by the Washington Post and the Woodward-Bernstein coverage of Watergate and its aftermath. Based on how Watergate had been covered and reported, it became acceptable to engage in "connect-the-dot" journalism, where events are placed side by side, implying that they are causally related when there are no facts to show that they are....

Second, an important reaction to Watergate was the enactment of the Independent Counsel statute in 1978. This law, which started with the noble idea that a prosecutor needed to be free of conflicts of interst to investigate the president or the Executive Branch, ended up creating an extra-Constitutional monstrosity, possessed of unaccountable prosecutorial power misused by politicians to attack and perhaps destroy their opponents...

The third change that affected American political culture was the telecommunications revolution that occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s. First came the new reality of 24-hour cable news television and the 24/7 news cycle. On top of this, the expansion of the Internet, with its wider and wider accessibility to the general public and global audience, added a whole new dimension to media communication....

Finally, accumulating bit by bit since Watergate as a result of these various changes, came a culture of public cynicism and increased willingness to accept innuendo and accusation as surrogates for due process and truth....

I don't disagree with these four points, but believe that there is a fifth cause that Davis has missed: the new development -- since the application of computers to the decennial construction of Congressional districts -- that it has become virtually impossible to unseat a member of the House of Representatives who is not already the target of a scandal. The permanent incumbancy of (almost) 435 Representatives has meant, first, that members no longer worry that if they say something angry or outrageous they may offend moderate voters who will turn on them at the next election. They no longer need guard their words because they can't lose. Their opportunities to say offensive things about political opponents have compounded with the content demands of three 24-hour news channels. The unfortunate result is that many Representatives have figured out that they can get attention in the national media by saying extreme things on television. The parties now deploy extreme Congressmen to say what the Senators and governors will not. Representatives have become the attack dogs of their parties because of their electoral invulnerability, and the public debate has coursened considerably as a result.

The permanent incumbancy also means that a challenger really needs a scandal to unseat a Representative. Well, if a scandal that humiliates a district's voters is the only way to beat an incumbant, challengers will make a priority of uncovering and promoting anything personal about a candidate that might be leveraged into humiliation. No wonder Congressmen seem oversexed and crooked. The only way to win is to prove that the incumbant is a sex fiend or a crook.

The House of Representatives is the least democratic institution in American politics, and until that changes the public discourse is unlikely to improve.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 26, 04:55:00 PM:

"The House of Representatives is the least democratic institution in American politics"

Clearly, you are unfamiliar with the New York State Legislature.

-George P  

By Blogger Enlighten, at Tue Sep 26, 06:10:00 PM:

There’s another major reason for the increasingly bitter partisanship - the amount of money at stake is huge. As government, on all levels, takes a larger and larger share of the nation’s economy the partisan battles become nastier and more intense. For example, a very sizable number of the antiwar crowd, if you peel away the “unjust war” rhetoric, is most upset over federal dollars going to defense as opposed to new and or “improved” entitlement programs.  

By Blogger noprisoners, at Tue Sep 26, 06:24:00 PM:

This is very interesting.

About 30 years ago I read a very interesting article that might speak to this issue as well. The article defined the differences between the "pre-1950" vs. the "post -1950" personality. In essence, the pre-1950 personality relied on experience data and observation to determine the veracity of someone's comments. (In other words, does what he/she is saying square up with my own experiences and observations?) The post-1950 personality accepted what was said based on who said it and their opinion of that person. I noted the 1950 breakpoint as approximately the time that television became widespread. I don't know if this is the real reason or not. However, the tactic of attacking the source of any information that a party finds threatening to it probably can be traced back to this concept.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Tue Sep 26, 08:35:00 PM:

Fascinating. My first impulse was to start rejecting Davis out of hand if he didn't apologise for his own part in the 1990's scandal culture and to lie in ambush for him not mentioning how much this has been a tactic of the left. But his points are good ones, and I will simmer down and consider them.

Your addition, TH may be the wildcard that looks less academic and thoughtful but actually is the real reason.

noprisoners, I wrote just this month on a related topic of audio and video improvements overrunning our defenses of sorting out narrative on our own, because they mimic reality too well. You might be interested. http://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.com/2006/09/fiction-conspiracy-theories-and.html  

By Anonymous Purple Avenger, at Tue Sep 26, 09:38:00 PM:

I'm not sure that things are any more partisan. What they do is get more coverage because of the media developments.

Its like various/notorious "crime waves" that declared in the past by the media when in fact crime was going down at the time o rstaying flat. When something gets press, it seems somehow enhanced in the public mind.

Politicians have always been vicious scumbags. They just have a wider more pervasive venue today than in the days where a local newspaper or the nightly news were they only means of disseminating their attacks.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Sep 27, 11:04:00 AM:

Excellent Blog! I think all of the points Davis makes and what TH makes are dead on. What may be lost as well is that there is no room on either side for a dissenting thought. One of the arguments I use to make to Dems is that they were the "all or nothing party." Where despite your beliefs you could not get elected to any office for being any of the following; Pro-life, Pro-Hand Gun, Anti Union, Pro School Vouchure, etc. While as a Republican we had major players such as Guilianni, Schwartzeneggar, Powell and countless other senators and congressmen who did not agree with every issue of the Republican platform. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Good luck to McCain and Guliani when they run for President and see if they even win a single primary because they have dared to have a different position on some of these key issues? Despite the fact that these two are the exact kind of character based guys our country will need in the years ahead. Quite honestly, having one of those moderates in office may actually take some of the "steam" out the public discourse.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Sep 28, 01:47:00 PM:

McCain will be out, b/c of the campaign finance reform and recent criticism of the treatment of terrorists. A lot of us would have been happy with McCain in 2000, but now eight years later we know him too well.  

By Anonymous Brezh, at Fri Sep 29, 02:39:00 PM:

TH, part of the solution can be found right here in the Hawkeye State. Redistricting is conducted by a "nonpartisan" commission which submits it final map to the legislature for an up or down vote.

Four of our five federal districts are considered "competitive". Jim Leach has been in office since the seventies, but rarely gets over 52% of the vote. His congressional voting record is about as centrist as you can get.

Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger's ballot iniative to implement a similar system in California was rejected by the very voters it would have empowered after a vigorous misinformation campaign by its opponents.

Districts should be drawn to ensure maximum competitiveness.  

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