Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Conservative Politics

I really didn’t like George W. Bush. Not only did he make me feel shame over being an American, I honestly was disgusted that I had to share being the same species with the guy. He was awful. Without a doubt he was our worst president and his ascension to power illustrates that the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about is alive, well and capable to stripping this country of all its rights whenever it wants.

I cringed every time he opened his mouth because I knew that the rest of the world would not give me and the other half of the country who voted against Bush credit for trying to stop him. I knew that the rest of the world wasn’t going to fuss over niggling details like lost ballots and defective voting machines in battleground states like Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. I’m convinced that fraud played a major role in both elections and I’m sure that both sides cheat on Election Day. It’s just that in 2000 and 2004 the race was so close that the fix actually worked. I can’t attest to Florida, I only know what was reported, but I live in Ohio and I know that there was something fishy going on. Globally, however, Bush was the United States. Think about that for a minute.

Through it all, I hated Bush but I opted to bide my time. I took comfort in the jokes offered by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They got me through some pretty tough times and reminded me that this country has managed to endure lousy leadership in the past. Perhaps they weren’t as incompetent and destructive as Bush, but we were going to survive.

I enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama because he represented change. I know that was his mantra but as a candidate he was really a departure from the norm. He stuck by his words, even when they were twisted and used against him. Rather than back-tracking and pretending he didn’t say something, like his comments about embittered people in Western Pennsylvania, Obama took ownership of his statements and explained his position. He seemed to keep his head out of the muck and stayed on point. That was refreshing. McCain was a grouchy old man who was desperately trying to play everybody under the GOP’s big tent. Unfortunately at speaking engagements and rallies the ugly side of his campaign reared its ugly head. The Republican party tried to stir up a lot of fear with regard to Obama and it resulted in the real people McCain pretended to care about saying some pretty awful things. Obama didn’t waste time obsessing with it. He did a great job of staying away from the negative tactics that had stirred up such a divide in this country.

That being said I know that he’s just a man and I realize that his political experience is limited. So the political games people play in Washington DC are going to catch him off guard. I believe he really wants to bridge the gap between the parties but loyalists on either side are going to stand in his way. People like Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy have axes to grind over the way Republicans ran amuck for most of the last 10 years so Republicans are naturally going to circle their wagons and try to ride out the first two years of the Obama Administration. If Obama manages to maintain a how approval rating and Democrats hold sway, then the GOP will retool its message. They don’t want to reach across party lines just yet, not when the jury is still out on Obama the President.

And that’s OK. Nobody is going to change the game of politics overnight and the task Obama faces is monumental. He’s going to be forced to shelve a number of his ideas and make a lot of compromises. By the time the midterm elections come around, the Democrats are probably going to lose a lot of ground because 2 years isn’t enough time to plug the holes in our economy. Let alone address issues like energy independence, and upgrading our infrastructure to support alternative fuels and an efficient power grid.

The problem I have isn’t with the politics, it’s with the pundits. I don’t put much stock in what pundits from either side of the aisle have to say, but a lot of people do and it demeans the discussion. I’ve had people tell me that Jon Stewart is a liberal pundit but I don’t see it. He’s certainly liberal in his personal political beliefs but his show is all about satire. He pokes fun at Democrats and Republicans equally. During the Bush Administration most of the jokes centered on Republicans because Democrats were successfully marginalized but Stewart and his staff took shots at Democrats for being so disorganized and impotent. It was all fair. Every comic in the country confirmed that the Bush Administration wrote its own material.

Now, Stewart has found comedy gold in conservative pundits. It’s hard to pass up an opportunity to skewer Rush Limbaugh for stating that he wants Obama to fail or to overlook Glen Beck tearfully lamenting the direction this country is heading. I doubt that Limbaugh or Beck actually believe most of what they say. They have cornered an inherently stupid audience that wants to indulge prejudice and fear. So Beck and Limbaugh make lots of money selling ignorance and hatred. They do it well.

You can throw guys like Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Vanity into that discussion too, although Ann’s so crazy that most conservatives try to distance themselves from her…officially anyway. I think she’s actually lampooning the conservative point of view but Conservatives are too stupid to realize that the joke is on them. It’s like Larry the Cable Guy’s fan base. Larry went from being the punch line to a joke about rednecks to chicken-fried cult hero. Now Dan Whitney, the disc jockey who created Larry, never appears out of character. He’s become a mascot for people who lose their virginity to a sibling.

O’Reilly and Hannity seem to enjoy humiliating people who disagree with them, not by presenting an intelligent counterpoint backed up with facts but by screaming at them like spoiled children and having the technicians turn off their microphones. It’s good drama and their core audience seems to think they’re good at debating.

Conservative pundits are bullies. They deal in petty insults and when they find themselves intellectually outmatched (which is often) they resort to violent physical posturing. I’ve seen Bill O’Reilly pound his fist on the desk and scream “DON’T CALL ME A LIAR!” when a guest noted that O’Reilly presented an argument that wasn’t accurate. Glenn Beck is also a big fan of bluster and Sean Hannity does more than his share of yelling and pointing.

These guys get away with it because their behavior is so far out of line that people simply can’t respond to it. Their fans eat it up because their fans enjoy that same aspect of professional wrestling. Glenn Beck would never act the way he does to guests on his show to a stranger in a bar because he knows that he’d end up eating his meals through a straw for the next six to ten weeks. It’s easy to be a tough guy when you’re screaming at somebody who is civil and mature enough to believe that debates aren’t supposed to disintegrate into tantrums, but Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck aren’t tough guys. They’re soft old white guys who live in gated communities and scurry across the street when approached by somebody who hasn’t shaved in the past four hours.

That’s one thing all of these blustery conservative pundits have in common: they’re all talk. With the exception of Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter, who are haggard old men, these are pudgy little white men who haven’t done an honest day’s work in decades. Hannity and Beck might huff and puff on a treadmill three times a week to stay out of size 48 underpants and Limbaugh probably sweats when he eats but non of these jerks is tough enough to back up all that bravado. Sadly, none of them are smart enough to gain the upper hand in a conversation without stooping Randy “Macho Man” Savage tactics.

What I find extremely funny is that Jon Stewart, who gets ridiculed by these clowns because he’s a late night funnyman, can roll up his sleeves and debate the best of them. After a week of bellyaching on national TV over being the subject of Daily Show jokes, Financial Analyst Jim Cramer sat down with Jon Stewart and got bitch-slapped. Stewart clearly did his homework, on both Cramer and the financial markets, and proceeded to spend an entire show taking Cramer to task.

Stewart usually mixes a few good points in with a number of solid questions, clever jokes and comical facial expressions but when he feels so inclined he can shred an opponent in a debate. A few years ago Stewart excoriated Bill Bennett for his statements on homosexuality and he hit Mike Huckabee with a couple of sharp blows on the same subject. Stewart jokingly takes credit for Tucker Carlson’s demise on the pundit circuit when Stewart went on Tucker’s show and called him out for being a polemicist. Fortunately Tucker Carlson has enough class to avoid balling up his fists and screaming threats at people, but Carlson didn’t demonstrate a lot of brainpower either.

And maybe that’s because a lot of the pundits are playing to the crowd. Perhaps they don’t buy a word of what they say. They’re like huckster evangelists selling salvation in six easy credit card installments. It doesn’t matter whether or not they think it’s right; it’s all about what keeps the money coming in. Limbaugh and Beck are college drop outs who struggled with regular employment. Limbaugh spent plenty of time on the public dime collecting unemployment and Beck blames a tough family life for his drug and alcohol dependence early on. They’re also total hypocrites. Beck routinely contradicts himself and Limbaugh famously ducked into rehab when news of his drug addiction became public.

What’s funny to me is that conservatives will justify the likes of Beck, Limbaugh and Coulter by comparing them to people like Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman. Bill O’Reilly so loathes Olberman that he has ordered Fox security staffers to confront callers who have mentioned Olberman on his show, but I don’t get much out of guys like Olberman or Matthews. In fact, I really don’t care for their posturing either. I suppose I find them a little less offensive because they aren’t pandering to inbred bigots and theological bullies who want to impose a specific puritanical version of morality on the entire country, but I have little use for pundits on either side.

Even if my theory is correct and the pundits really are just hamming it up for a paycheck, the fact that guys like Limbaugh and Beck have no problem with their appeal to the KKK set is disturbing, and when you pull the curtain back and take a look at the inner machinations of the Republican Party you see a very unnerving relationship with the kind of people who thought the assassinations of the King, X and the Kennedys made sense at the time.

The 2008 election was a departure from lunacy. Sensible people had an alternative to partisan affiliations. Most Republicans think that their party would be better served if it would drop the abortion issue and forget about gay marriage, but the party leaders are terrified of facing a world where they can’t count on coots, hicks and rednecks. When the Democratic Party decided to turn its back on the pro-segregation Dixie-crats back in the 60s, the Republican Party was more than happy to welcome them in. Officially the party distances itself from offending people who aren’t sexist, racist and homophobic by hiding behind the issue of “States’ Rights” but everybody knows that that’s code for endorsing those very things. Reagan championed State’s Rights with a gleam in his eye as he winked at KKK Grand Wizards on his tour of the Deep South in 1980. Republicans even skirt the abortion issue by claiming that Roe vs. Wade should be overturned so the states can legislate abortion laws, but yet the Republican politicians choose where to stand on the issue based on where they need more votes.

The problem is that the handful of Republicans who try to distance themselves from the conservative pundits find themselves in hot water within their own party. Michael Steele, taking a cue from the 2008 election tried to distance the base of the party from Rush Limbaugh by marginalizing the irascible radio blabbermouth as an entertainer. Within a few days Steele was on his hands and knees trying to figure out which of Rush’s ample butt cheeks would put him back in good graces with the angry white people who steer the GOP. Newt Gingrich, who was once Rush Limbaugh’s wet dream when he was raging against Bill Clinton, picked up that baton and ran with it but Gingrich is drawing criticism from his party for dividing the base.

The people accused of being liberal pundits don’t pander to the wild-eyed extremists. The lines that have been drawn were carefully created by Conservatives who characterize anything remotely liberal as a socialist plot. Ironically it’s the liberals who want government to be less invasive. Conservatives pundits rage against issues like national healthcare and the federal government’s involvement in education but the goal isn’t to have the government dictate how people are educated or cared for, it’s to make sure that people have the same opportunities. It’s not socialist to expect that a poor kid growing up in Parkersburg, West Virginia will get the same opportunities to succeed as the rich in Orange County. Obviously, wealth is going to provide the rich kid with certain advantages but there should be a massive disparity in the basic education provided by the public school system.

It’s also ridiculous that simple medical care is becoming a luxury in this country. Finding a way to leverage the wealth and power of the people, who are represented by the federal government, against the corporate greed that fuels exorbitant costs is reasonable. Nobody wants to eliminate private medical practice. Nobody wants a truly socialized system. What we want is to make the basic procedure affordable to everybody. But there’s no middle ground with conservative pundits. There never is. It’s black and white; yes or no; with us or against us.

The problem is that it’s advantageous. Simplicity is easy to argue, and easy to defend. Most of the issues are complicated. People see the federal government investing trillions of dollars back into the economy and they wonder why the banks are getting a windfall when the average Joe is living in his car. Divy that money up for the working stiff, they cry, we’ll stimulate the economy. Then of course, conservatives will line up and rally for corporate tax cuts and more breaks for the wealthy. Trickle down economics. It’s simple.

The problem is that the economy isn’t simple. It’s complex. Most of the problems we face are. They require complex solutions, not pithy sound bites. The conservative pundits don’t care. They found an audience that doesn’t like to think. They’re the same people who think Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck” act qualifies as intellectual humor. They find the nuances of NASCAR to be fascinating and they love professional Rasslin’. It’s because those things are simple. So it makes sense to reduce the business of government and politics to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t even matter if it’s right or wrong, because at the end of the day it’s all about the money.


secondsout said...

I agree with most of what you said. Good post.

I watch Jon Stewart and Colbert pretty religiously. I do agree that they certainly lean left, and are in that grey area, as to whether they are pundits or not. Occasionally, Stewart breaks out of the mold of humor and does a serious interview. His recent bit where he raked CNBC over the coals was a pretty solid example of that.

And fuck Bill O'Reilly. That pompous asshole is a huge part of what is wrong with the political right. On that same note, I don't like watching Keith Olbermann. Even though I often agree with him, he's also a pompous little troll. I preferred Al Franken for left-wing punditry, but he's now a Senator, not a pundit. MSNBC's attempt to be a left-wing version of Fox News is tiring.

And what ever happened to the practice of tarring and feathering? Rush Limbaugh seems like a prime candidate at the moment.

claw71 said...

That's a lot of tar and feathers.

lizardrinking said...

Great post. I love Jon Stewart.