Political Game Playing Promotes Partisanship Through Polarization

Fox_News_Channel's_Your_World_studio

Fox News studio. Photo: Inside Cable News (CC)

Grrrrrrrr.

You can almost hear the growling in the background as the masters of attack politics go into action, virtually every hour on the hour, on the Fox News Channel. The issues they focus on are carefully selected by top executives and then broken down into highly politicized message points.

Their dominant emotion is annoyance, as expressed in sarcasm and scowling. Contempt is the underlying attitude.

The other side is usually not just wrong but plain stupid, almost unbelievable in its soft-headed naivete and distance from reality

A “what do you expect” question invariably tops off the argument which always ends with the Fox host a winner and the Democrat or social critic a loser on every level.

Standing on a podium, driven by self-righteous certainty, the finger pointers view the people they talk about, and talk down to, as below the intelligence threshold of people even worth arguing with.

As Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have proven, in this universe, hyping the extreme and outrageous seems to attract audiences.

That leads to higher ratings and, the real goal, higher revenues.

Clearly they feel it is their duty to play Paul Revere, who warned Colonial America that, “The British are coming.” They warn their faithful against political deviations that might lead them astray.

What is hard to recognize, or often realize, is that the topics chosen are calculated and behind a strategy of using emotionally tested wedge issues to politicize by polarizing.

Political scientist, Alan Abramowitz, argues that polarization is good for America in his new book, The Disappearing Center:

“All the indicators we have show that polarization has actually contributed to increased engagement in politics, because people do perceive important differences and they think that there are big stakes in elections, he writes.”

He was asked if he thinks this is healthy for a democracy:

“Well, up to a point. I think that a certain degree of polarization is healthy in a democracy. It clarifies the choices people have in elections, and it helps voters to hold the parties accountable for their performance”

At the same time, other political analysts say, “The more polarized political parties are, the less most of us care about the political process”

Survey data shows that people often take polarized positions because they think they are expected to when they identify with a certain party. With the sincerity and beliefs of Democrats mocked and under constant vitriolic attack, who would want to be thought of that way?

If they have questions, they don’t raise them. It’s easier to parrot the party line.

Recall, it is politicians, not “the people” who define those issues. They rely on corporate -style market research and focus groups. They chose slogans and even language that often has a patriotic subtext. When government programs are likened to Socialism, it’s not surprising when people who consider themselves conservatives reject them even when they don’t really know what socialism is.

This is also true of what appears to be populist movements like The Tea Party whose agenda and talking points have been established by professional consultants, guided by political operatives and funded by conservative billionaires.

As one study put it. “In other words, since the parties are now more clearly divided – and on a broader set of issues – it is easier for people to split accordingly, without changing their own views.”

That’s the key point: “without changing their own views.” The dirty little secret is the discovery in many studies that the most systematic polarization appears only in mass partisanship: those who are politically active or identify themselves with a party or ideology tend to have more extreme positions than the rest of the population. But, at the same time, their core political views have changed very little. For example, many on the right depend on and support Medicare.

What’s also not always clear to folks on the left is that Fox News positions itself as an upholder of what are, at bottom, liberal American values. Hence their motto about Fairness and Balance. (They actually have more opposing views on their programs than channels like MSNBC.)

The LA Times understood this when writing, “Fox’s real ethos is not Republican but anti-elitist — a major reason it connects with so many Americans and annoys so many coastal elites. “There’s a whole country that elitists will never acknowledge,” Ailes once observed. “What people resent deeply out there are those in the ‘blue states’ thinking they’re smarter.”

This anti-elitism shows itself in Fox’s pro-U.S. stance in covering the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and its broadcasters’ use of terms such as “terrorist” instead of “militants.” Another aspect of Fox’s anti-elitism is that, “Christians, far from being seen as lunatics or curiosities (as too often is the case in the mainstream media) actually get some respect.”

So Fox plays a double game, concealing the most reactionary and partisan of perspectives in the appearance of populism. It is then packaged in the format of news programming and above the fray television driven by hot graphics, pretty blonds, and relentless posturing.

The formula works in attracting audiences while, at the same time, feeding into a political strategy of promoting partisanship through heightening polarization and political conflict.

No issue is too small to exploit. A week after the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden, Fox had found a new enemy to bash as a target in the nightly culture war behind its political war.

Michelle Obama had invited a rapper named Common to a White House poetry reading. Some of his lyrics, in the parlance of ghetto talk, appeared to suggest he approved of a cop killing. That’s all that Fox needed to hear. Program after program went on to attack this latest example of black racism.

Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart used video clips and his own free-style rapping to ridicule the distortions in their characterizations. He blasted Fox for “manufacturing outrage” and pumping a blend of propaganda he calls “foxygen” into the room. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly blasted back inviting Stewart to debate him and insisting that their focus only reflected their outrage over a pro-cop-killing artist being invited to the White House.

(Hip Hop radio personality Davey D reminds his audience that Fox never gets outraged by police brutality in black communities. He posted a thoughtful commentary on his Facebook page.)

Any objective person might concede the poet rapper was not calling for a jihad against cops. It didn’t matter because Fox viewers tend to believe what their TV heroes tell them.  It looked like he was; there fore he was.

Soon, the facts no loner mattered in a cross-cultural battle of metaphor and misinformation. Fox had its new weapon of mass distraction to focus on and smear Obama with while ignoring the other big story of the day: the conviction of a billionaire Hedge Fund schemer accused on insider trading and conspiracy.

In Fox world the Free Market is holy, even when its not, and only big government (under Democrats, of course) is to blame for our economic woes.

In the end what we have is a cruel and deceptive game that appears to be informative when its not, presided over by professional actors and reactors. And like the old joke asks: “How do you know when they are lying?” The answer: “when their lips are moving.”

News Dissector Danny Schechter made the film, Plunder: The Crime of Our Time, about the financial crisis as a crime story.

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  • Haystack

    This is, at bottom, why I’m sickened into apathy about the political process. It’s abundantly obvious the principal business of both parties is to win a PR war. Solving the country’s problems is desirable insofar as it helps you do that (e.g., unemployment rates will effect Obama’s reelection prospects in 2012), but only in a secondary sense. As George W. Bush and the GoP have richly illustrated, even if you fail spectacularly, you can easily bounce back in a couple years with the right marketing. In a system that rewards style above substance, there’s very little selection pressure upon politicians to actually accomplish something. 

    It’s all just fiddling while Rome burns. 

  • Haystack

    This is, at bottom, why I’m sickened into apathy about the political process. It’s abundantly obvious the principal business of both parties is to win a PR war. Solving the country’s problems is desirable insofar as it helps you do that (e.g., unemployment rates will effect Obama’s reelection prospects in 2012), but only in a secondary sense. As George W. Bush and the GoP have richly illustrated, even if you fail spectacularly, you can easily bounce back in a couple years with the right marketing. In a system that rewards style above substance, there’s very little selection pressure upon politicians to actually accomplish something. 

    It’s all just fiddling while Rome burns. 

  • TJ

    This is why propaganda works: it’s fueled by emotion.  This is the only reason social issues are used, simply because it fuels emotion and the sheeple will take sides or just give up on the whole thing all together, not feeling represented by either party.  Polarization is the only thing that keeps the two party failed system alive.  Christianity fits snugly in this system because it’s just another pre-determined set of beliefs without considering individual differences.  Those that accept religion at literal, face value are likely to also choose one side or the other because they don’t actually have to form an opinion of their own.  The template ideology is ready and convenient, perfectly carved for morons.  This is why somebody like Ron Paul is dangerous in an environment like this, saying words that get people all excited, like Federal Reserve and marijuana legalization, while he slides by with his socially conservative agenda.  While I agree it was rather typical of Fox to attack Common and the White House for inviting him with the lyrics “Tell the law, my Uzi weighs a ton, I walk like a warrior, from them I won’t run.”  That doesn’t necessarily make the other side of the argument correct either.  All together, I would say it was pretty inappropriate for this setting to say the least, but this is just an example of how Fox narrows in on something and people either agree or disagree.  Plus, how does Common have an Uzi anyway or was he just figuratively speaking?  These are the issues that just blip on the radar and sail on by because people are too distracted, arguing the wrong argument, to notice.  IMO, people will begin to feel they fit more comfortably in the middle of the madness, rather than on either side.  Another reason why we should end the electorate college and have a third party for those of us whose vote would otherwise be wasted.  “Tell the law, my Uzi weighs a ton, I walk like a warrior, from them I won’t run.”  That doesn’t necessarily make the other side of the argument correct either.  All together, I would say it was pretty inappropriate for this setting to say the least, but this is just an example of how Fox narrows in on something and people either agree or disagree.  Plus, how does Common have an Uzi anyway or was he just figuratively speaking?  These are the issues that just blip on the radar and sail on by because people are too distracted, arguing the wrong argument, to notice.  IMO, people will begin to feel they fit more comfortably in the middle of the madness, rather than on either side.  Another reason why we should end the electorate college and have a third party for those of us whose vote would otherwise be wasted.  

    • TJ

       Sorry, I don’t know why that repeated half my comment at the end.

  • TJ

    This is why propaganda works: it’s fueled by emotion.  This is the only reason social issues are used, simply because it fuels emotion and the sheeple will take sides or just give up on the whole thing all together, not feeling represented by either party.  Polarization is the only thing that keeps the two party failed system alive.  Christianity fits snugly in this system because it’s just another pre-determined set of beliefs without considering individual differences.  Those that accept religion at literal, face value are likely to also choose one side or the other because they don’t actually have to form an opinion of their own.  The template ideology is ready and convenient, perfectly carved for morons.  This is why somebody like Ron Paul is dangerous in an environment like this, saying words that get people all excited, like Federal Reserve and marijuana legalization, while he slides by with his socially conservative agenda.  While I agree it was rather typical of Fox to attack Common and the White House for inviting him with the lyrics “Tell the law, my Uzi weighs a ton, I walk like a warrior, from them I won’t run.”  That doesn’t necessarily make the other side of the argument correct either.  All together, I would say it was pretty inappropriate for this setting to say the least, but this is just an example of how Fox narrows in on something and people either agree or disagree.  Plus, how does Common have an Uzi anyway or was he just figuratively speaking?  These are the issues that just blip on the radar and sail on by because people are too distracted, arguing the wrong argument, to notice.  IMO, people will begin to feel they fit more comfortably in the middle of the madness, rather than on either side.  Another reason why we should end the electorate college and have a third party for those of us whose vote would otherwise be wasted.  “Tell the law, my Uzi weighs a ton, I walk like a warrior, from them I won’t run.”  That doesn’t necessarily make the other side of the argument correct either.  All together, I would say it was pretty inappropriate for this setting to say the least, but this is just an example of how Fox narrows in on something and people either agree or disagree.  Plus, how does Common have an Uzi anyway or was he just figuratively speaking?  These are the issues that just blip on the radar and sail on by because people are too distracted, arguing the wrong argument, to notice.  IMO, people will begin to feel they fit more comfortably in the middle of the madness, rather than on either side.  Another reason why we should end the electorate college and have a third party for those of us whose vote would otherwise be wasted.  

  • TJ

     Sorry, I don’t know why that repeated half my comment at the end.

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