Sunday, March 29, 2020

American Political Media Can't Stop Slapping At Trump And Trump Can't Stop Slapping Back

forward |  If you’re not part of the political or chattering classes, you might have missed two recent tempests that erupted in tiny teacups on the devil’s banquet of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, the President insisted on calling the virus that causes COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” And this week, he’s insulted a number of reporters at his press conferences. For days, the media couldn’t stop talking about the incidents (yours truly was not exempt). But while the media obsessed over the President’s nomenclature and attacks against themselves, no one else seemed to care. As of this writing, 60% of Americans approve of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a new Gallup poll. His approval rating is the highest of his entire presidency.

It was a stark reminder of how little the media’s concerns reflect those of the nation more widely. It’s a gap that’s only growing, reflected in the incredulous and disgusted tweets of major media figures when they come across the president’s polling numbers. In fact, the true polarization in American life is not between Republican and Democratic voters, but between the American electorate and its representatives in government and in the media, who exist in a radically polarizing feedback loop that has disconnected them from the American people like two moons orbiting each other that have lost the centripetal pull to the planet they once circled.

Of course, this is hard to see if you’re on one of those moons. So it’s no surprise that media personalities think that the polarization that’s happening in their class is representative of how Americans feel. Thus, Ezra Klein’s new book “Why We’re Polarized.” The “we” in the title is presumably America, though the question in Klein’s title is not the one he ultimately answers. “This is not a book about people,” Klein admits in the introduction. Instead, he focuses on braiding together the insights of two other sources of information — “politicians, activists, government officials” and “political scientists, sociologists, historians” – to make the case that politics has become more polarized to appeal to a more polarized public, effectively polarizing the public further in a feedback loop.

The book explores the history of American politics, showing how the two parties used to be a lot more similar to each other, resulting in a large percentage of Americans splitting their votes between Republicans and Democrats. This essentially kept politics from being too polarized because people’s identities weren’t bound up in it; the parties were just too similar to allow for that kind of investment. Klein argues that as the parties differentiated themselves, different kinds of Americans began sorting themselves into the parties, merging racial, religious, geographic and cultural identities with political ones and making politics more personal, more urgent, and crucially more defined against the other side.