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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Reflection on the Direction of the Election

Somewhere deep in a bunker in Nebraska there is a family cursed to receive all of their information from cable news.  For almost nine years they’ve been forced to survive on their Y2K stockpile of freeze-dried legumes and astronaut ice cream.  They spend each day with their ears nimbly perked for the sound of the anthrax warning system in the air filters, hoping that the dirty bombs will get them before the socialist takeover.

Each day the cable news streams in to their radiation-proof, blast-proof, H1N1 proof concrete fortress.  Dad tests the emergency global-warming-snorkels while mom disinfects her disinfectant.  The children take turns at the periscope, scanning the horizon for killer bees.  And each day the news grows worse.

The country above them, you see, is torn apart by civil strife.  The economy has crumbled under its own weight and the nation has split apart into warring factions.  The nation is being steered by a foreign born Muslim socialist who may or may not be the antichrist and his opposition is made up of wretched, gun toting bigots who live at a perpetual hair’s breadth from violence.

Each day the cable news reaffirms the grim outlook.  There is no discourse left in the world, no bipartisan effort to solve the problems of the day.  No consensus in the scientific or economic disciplines can be reached and there is no political will left to act upon the conclusions experts are unable to make.  People are trading in their gold for nonperishable seeds as Judgment Day draws ever nearer.

But one night, something odd happens.  While cleaning the elephant gun, dad hears a loud bang atop the secret entrance to their hideaway.  He quickly gathers a pistol, a shotgun, a tranquilizer gun, a trench knife and a serrated bayonet and rushes up the ladder to see what is afoot.  Mom and the boys take defensive positions and don their gas masks, but when dad returns he is unalarmed and glancing curiously at what appears to be a phone.

By some miraculous accident, the phone had made its way to their bunker.  Dad had seen one before, of course, but it had been years and the technology had changed so much.  After tinkering with it for a few seconds, he randomly dials a number.  Your number, as it should happen.

“Hello?” you mumble.  Normally you don’t answer unknown numbers, but ever since you entered that Snuggie-of-the-month giveaway sweepstakes you can’t help yourself.  Mistaking him for someone you care about, you soon find yourself embroiled in a conversation in which he lays out his family’s unfortunate fate.

It takes you a minute to wrap your head around the whole situation but when you do, you almost laugh.  “No,” you assure him, “that’s not what the world is really like at all.  They just put that on cable news because people will watch if they focus on the extremists and the terrifying stuff.”

Now dad grows suspicious.  He realizes that this could be some coy plot by the aspiring socialist regime meant to coax all of the survivalists out of hiding so that they could be forced into social cog-hood.  By a subtle change in his tone, you realize that he is losing trust in you, but you still feel obligated to talk him out of his self-imposed exile.

So what do you say?

If nobody took it seriously cable news would be a national joke.  We could sit back and enjoy a laugh at Rick Sanchez’s blabbering, Bill O’Reilly’s rhetoric and Keith Olbermann’s melodrama.  We could nudge our children and say things like “did you catch that logical fallacy?” and our kids could answer back “excluded middle!” and we would know that it was really more of a false dichotomy but we wouldn’t want to stifle their enthusiasm.

You and I know that their slant is not toward the republican or the democrat but rather toward the dollar.  Fox News does not red-wash their coverage because they are conservative plutocrats, but because they get a more consistent audience when they don’t challenge the politics of their viewers.  MSNBC doesn’t slant left because they are run by tote bag carrying, tree-hugging, socialist hippies.  They slant left because Fox News created a hole in the market that allowed a floundering news station to legitimize itself.

And they don’t stoke fear to usher in the end times or fulfill the nefarious Illuminati plans to embroil the nation in chaos.  They stoke fear because fear keeps viewers watching and encourages them to tune in day after day.  They do the same thing with stories of hope and human frailty but fear is less expensive to produce.

The problem is that not all of us are in on the joke.  It should come as no surprise that there are negative consequences that come along with reporting all of the news with a slant and manufacturing controversy.  As the midterms reach their crescendo, those consequences could not be clearer. 

The cable news has shown almost nothing but the extreme ends of both political parties for the past several years.  In Bush’s waning years every protest we saw was dominated by pictures of Hitler’s mustache superimposed on W’s face and calls for investigations of his connection to 9/11.  One could be forgiven for thinking that nobody but the complete nutcases had a legitimate complaint about Bush’s policies.

Now the coin has been flipped.  If you trust the news, you might think that every republican rally is now peopled with racists, bigots and crazed lunatics liable to stomp on your head at a moment’s notice.  It is as though one could not disagree with Obama’s policies without also disagreeing with the Emancipation Proclamation.

And now, like Frankenstein’s monster, the beast that they created is fighting back.  The unfortunate multitudes who didn’t get the memo about Santa being a myth are springing into action and they are voting their conscience.  They are voting in droves for the candidates that promise not to compromise, not to back down, not to work with the opposition, not to legislate…

To be fair, the aforementioned press has grossly mischaracterized this election and like most midterms it will largely be won and lost on local issues.  Not every republican candidate is a self-accused witch wearing a Nazi uniform while they explain how unconstitutional the minimum wage is.  Likewise, not every democrat is desperately clinging to a cliff, their knuckles bruised by the infuriated boot heels of betrayed voters.  What will surely be described as an avalanche will likely be a swing of a few percentage points here and there and some anomalous elections from a few years ago reverting to more historically viable candidates.

But the likely outcome will still be more gridlock, less legislation, more filibustering, less reforming, more partisanship and less accomplishment.  Frustration and misinformation have led people to believe the paradoxical assertion that less compromise can bring about more result.

The problem is not that there are no voters left in the center.  The problem is that they’re not sexy enough for TV.  They don’t say outlandish enough things, scribble offensive enough signs or hold violent enough rallies to make the news cycle.  Fear sells and moderate people are generally the least afraid.

Fear and anger don’t just sell ad space.  They are also powerful motivators to fill ballot boxes.  This leads to an frightening alliance between politics and the media that feeds itself at the expense of both the voter and the nation. 

Anger stokes irrationality, an effect easily observable when driving in traffic.  This is why we rarely allow ourselves to make important decisions when we are mad.  Anger inhibits our mental faculties.  We know never to discipline our children in anger, yet we think nothing of doing exactly that to our politicians.

Meanwhile the pendulum swings back and forth.  Voters are motivated through wedge issues that are sure not to be solved in the near term.  Compromise is punished, principled legislation is forgotten, rhetoric trumps result and the only thing that matters is who was holding the potato when the music stopped.

It’s Election Day today.  If you weren’t already planning to vote it’s probably too late for me to convince you otherwise, but if the long lined scared you off or the new episode of “Raising Hope” looks too funny to miss (and it does), I urge you to reconsider.  The balance to extremism is rationality.  It’s hard to get fired up about the middle ground, but it’s the only path that actually leads anywhere.

Vote for sanity this year.  We’ve tried the other option enough times to know it doesn’t work.  Vote for concession and negotiation.  Vote for cooperation and progress.  And remember, the color of the future is purple.

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