We are at a critical point in the evolution of American politics. The left has moved farther left, the right has moved farther right, and all lines of communication between the two sides have been cut off. The center has fallen into a vacuum. This is a dangerous trend, and one that we must reverse.
American political news is no longer "news" in the sense of objective fact. On our most popular televised political programs, rather than being confronted with opposing viewpoints and given a choice of whom to believe, we are told what to believe by "journalists" seeking to purvey a comprehensive and one-sided world view. Indeed, it seems you could go through your entire life without having to be exposed to a narrative that questions or undermines the assumed truth of the picture your camp paints. If you watch Bill O'Reilly, you think the world is one way; if you watch Keith Olbermann, you think it's another, and both are mutually exclusive. The bottom line is the same, however: mutual anger and distrust of the other side. There is no referee monitoring the game, calling out the half-truths and misstatements, leveling the playing field. Rather than Hannity and Colmes, we now have "Hannity."
The loser in this equation is rationality. While the media seeks to paint every issue as either black or white, the truth is almost always gray. The problem is that it's a lot more difficult, and takes a lot more time, to find it there. Look at health care or financial reform. How many Americans actually understand what is in these bills, what measures will be taken and what policies enacted, aside from all the hullabaloo about "death panels," "socialism," "Wall Street vs. Main Street," and the other partisan talking points that deflect attention from the boring details? The details are what will impact Americans' lives every day for years to come, yet they float amorphously in the gray. If we want to truly understand the problems we face, we need to delve deeper into that mist. It is hard, but necessary, work.
Will we be willing to do it? I don't know. Listening to mainstream political analysis today, I can't help but think of Maximus's cry in the Colosseum amidst all the jolly slaughter. Americans, "Are you not entertained!?" That is, indeed, the driving force behind what you see, hear and read, because let's face it, policy discussions and rational discourse inevitably lead to a quick channel change or flip of the page. The logical minority are drowned out by the thundering polemic of the Limbaughs, Palins, Schultzs, etc. of the world. They're certainly more fun and interesting to listen to. They may make your blood boil, but they ignite passions and thus draw attention. Bigger is better, conflict is key, and finger-pointing rules the day. And they get ratings. Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck regularly have 2-3 million viewers. Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, 1-2 million. But someone like Fareed Zakaria, one of the more balanced and reasonable commentators on the air? 190,000. Granted, primetime is different from Sunday morning, but these numbers nevertheless mean that less than a tenth of the people who listen to Beck's unhinged rants every day listen to Zakaria's level-headed analysis. And they are certainly not the same people.
When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their famous debates in 1858, one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute rejoinder. Crowds would sit for hours, patiently listening to both men present their arguments. Now? Change minutes to seconds. Stick to your talking points. Don't answer the question, especially if the answer is one that voters might not want to hear. Always keep it very simple. Always blame the other guy, even if it's your fault. Play to your base. There is no reality beyond spin. Is it a coincidence that partisan think-tanks spew out "statistics" that directly contradict one another? Polls that irreconcilably conflict?
That is why we need to see the center reemerge. It is willing to approach every issue with an open mind, to be swayed not by the volume of the speaker's voice or the giddy outlandishness of her claims, but by the strength of her arguments. It will not align itself with any demagogue, falling in lockstep with the pounding drum of cynical white noise. It will move beyond left and right, and regain the true essence of what it means to be an American: being an individual, thinking for yourself, and making your own choices after careful consideration. Jefferson said, "Inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." He is right. Thought, rather than anger, will be our saving grace.
In The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats, writing in the wake of the first World War, warned of the consequences of a humanity severed from rational thought and common understanding. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." As we watch our political discourse crumble around us, we should heed these words. The center must once again break its silence and lead us to a place where there is only one reality, and it stems from truth. We must oversee the second coming of an Age of Reason in American politics. We must fight with the strength of our minds. For as Yeats wrote, in troubled times, "[t]he best lack all conviction, while the worst [a]re full of passionate intensity." Turn on your television for ten minutes, and tell me that you disagree. The center must hold, for it is in the hands of the centrists to venture into the gray and to tame the rough beast, deaf, blind, filled with hatred, loosed from rationality, that slouches towards Washington to be born.