November 14, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
‘Division’ and ‘polarization’ got us here. They’ll get us out
The press corps treats democratic politics as abnormal. That’s what happens when democratic politics threatens the status quo.
Perhaps the Washington press corps should embark on a pilgrimage to a desert wilderness in the Levant where they can learn to defy the temptations of “objectivity” the way Christ defied those of Satan.
Until that time, we must suffer the likes of Susan Page.
USA Today’s DC bureau chief managed to write last Wednesday more than 1,000 words about last week’s congressional elections without saying who did what to whom. Her posture was the familiar “view from nowhere.” She drew straight from the lexicon of “objectivity.”
On Election Day 2022, Americans were unhappy with the present, pessimistic about the future and not fully enamored with either party. Their anxious, angry mood helps explain why campaign appeals turned mostly not on aspirational promises – on exploring exploring space or ending poverty, say – but on ominous warnings about the dangers of supporting the other wide.
The polarization that has marked US politics for a generation has become more toxic, even more than during the era of anti-war protests and political assassinations in the 1960s. Not only do the two parties offer contrasting views on policy and conflicting visions for the country, but some candidates are even refusing to commit to accept the elections’ outcomes.
If it feels like you’ve read this before, you have.
It tells you nothing.
It warps everything.
Division” and “polarization” have been the leitmotif of the Washington press crops since at least 2008, when half the country refused to recognize the legitimacy of the first Black president. While “division” and “polarization” are strictly accurate, the way they’re used in reporting democratic politics is fantastically misleading.
Saying that democratic politics is dividing and polarizing America is like saying water is wet. Water has been wet. It is currently wet. It will be wet. Wetness is water’s nature and history. Likewise, “division” and “polarization” are deeply rooted in America’s nature and history.
To say “deep division and politics of fear set the tone for 2024” is accurate but those qualities set the tone for every election. Water is wet. Politics divides. Accurate but doing more harm than good.
Are “division” and “polarization” self-evidently bad? Page appears to think so. But why would the Washington bureau chief of a big national newspaper believe that? “Division” and “polarization” are neither good nor bad on their own. It depends on the context.
If “division” and “polarization” are driving authoritarian politics, that’s bad. But if they are driving democratic politics, that’s good. The purveyors of “objectivity,” however, refuse to say which is which. This choice against choosing is not principled. It is, however, revealing.
Presenting “division” and “polarization” as newsworthy on their own impresses on the audience, by way of merely talking about them, that “division” and “polarization” are somehow abnormal – that they are bad, wrong, extraordinary, even deviant, eliciting fear and dread.
“Division” and “polarization” seem like something out of the ordinary when they are actually in the ordinary. Such an upside down view of democratic politics warps our understanding, thus hindering a democratic people from seeking change democratically.
It’s news rhetoric.
God did not hand us the lexicon of “objectivity” the way he allegedly handed Moses the 10 commandments. The lexicon is the product of choices, which is the product of politics. That’s news rhetoric. And because it’s arises from choices made in a political context, the lexicon of “objectivity” cannot represent the view from nowhere.
There’s a somewhere out there.
It’s the status quo.
Susan Page said the midterm campaigns were negative. They were rife with dire warnings about the dangers of voting for the other side.
In a tenor of lamentation, she said candidates did not run “on aspirational promises.” She gives two examples of “aspirational promises.” They are “exploring space” and “ending poverty, say.”
These are allusions to two presidents and two eras in our history that baby boomers are now remembering, in late age, as more harmonious than they were. John Kennedy launched the so-called “space race.” Successor Lyndon Johnson initiated federal programs together were called “the Great Society” to combat social ills.
But neither Kennedy nor Johnson united Americans any more than any other president had. Sure, there were compromises, bargaining. But suggesting, as Page does, that democratic politics is more “divisive” and “polarizing” now than it used to be is just nostalgia – for that uncomplicated time when everyone seemed to get along.
Which never was.
By portraying today’s democratic politics as if it were abnormal, or bad, compared to yesterday’s, Page is defending the status quo, specifically, a status quo as understood by others in her generation – white Americans who don’t care for how these United States have changed and who’d rather things go back to the way they used to be.
By saying democratic politics is worse now than it was “during the era of anti-war protests and political assassinations” (!), Page creates a fictional standard in comparison to which democratic politics can’t help but be bad, wrong, extraordinary, dreadful, even deviant.
The politics of the status quo gave rise to Donald Trump and today’s toxic climate. So the press corps often suggests that we go back to that uncomplicated time when everyone seemed to get along, deploying a news rhetoric preferred by their boomer bosses.
No, we shouldn’t go back to a time that never existed. Neither should we hold on to a moldering status quo. Democratic politics – “division” and “polarization” – is how we got here. It’s how we get out.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.