To claim that political discourse in the U.S. is nasty these days feels supremely unremarkable. Spin the wheel and chalk the increasingly noxious atmosphere up to media bubbles, cultural backlash, creeping fascism, the Bilderberg Group, extraterrestrial intervention or whatever you want, really. Whichever option you buy, causes are only apparent in retrospect. What’s clear to me now is that more than other time in my (admittedly very short) political memory, our politics play out in a landscape of moral danger.
Look at the reaction to Trump’s budget and you’ll see what I mean. He proposes diverting $54 billion in discretionary spending away from agencies like the EPA and the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, etc. That money will instead be redirected toward Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.
You can guess how that was received.
The proposed cuts have been widely characterized as heartless, inhumane and cruel. The New York Times editorial board went so far as to suggest that Trump is imposing “pain for pain’s sake.” Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro even worked up enough indignation to become Facebook famous, as enabled by NowThis (a truly top-notch purveyor of click-bait news and not much else). “It is wrong to do this to our kids,” she said regarding the 14 percent decrease in the Department of Education’s budget.
What’s with all the pathos, huh? Sure, politics and morality are inseparable, but there’s danger in constantly framing the one in terms of the other. Besides, it’s disingenuous. Policy debates sometimes stem from conflicting values (e.g. abortion, gay marriage, etc.), but they just as often come down to practical differences. Every politician in their right mind wants to grow the economy, create jobs, raise the standard of living, bring Christmas cheer to children everywhere, etc. They just disagree about how to accomplish that.
This might be an obvious point, but apparently it’s easily forgotten. With 36 percent of Americans identifying as conservative (compared to 25 percent who call themselves liberals), the basket of deplorables seems inconceivably wide. So, if we share some of the same basic goals, why are we moralizing past each other? It’s not totally our fault, but it sort of is. Here, I’m all too happy to embrace lesson one of Trumpism: Blame the media.
As much as we’d like to believe our news channel or our newspaper gives us the objective truth, the fourth estate is no neutral force. To varying degrees, all popular journalism outlets in the U.S. are wrapped up in a corporatist system wherein their continued existence is a function of their ability to attract viewership, subscriptions and ad revenue. Any moral mission they may claim to have is secondary. Their vested interest is in telling us what we want to hear, because if we don’t like what’s on Fox or The Wall Street Journal, we turn to CNN or The New York Times instead.
Think about this: Can you remember the last time you saw something in your favorite news source that fundamentally changed your opinion on an issue? Don’t you mostly consume news that’s already in line with your political views?
To keep us clicking they have to keep us pissed off; in 2017, indignation is the new novelty. That’s the root of our current conflation of the moral and the political, since nothing keeps us glued to the screen like moral outrage. This is also, I think, where the Democratic Party is lifting its current tactics from. Moderates and independents didn’t pay attention when Hillary brought her message of hope and no-change to Wisconsin and Michigan (oh, wait!), but the Moral Criminal in Chief sure does mobilize them.
(They love it almost as much as videos of Melania not wanting to hold Donald’s hand, which, don’t get me wrong, I love too. That kind of castrating power is… exhilarating to watch.)
Is it Trump’s intention to hurt children by defunding their education? Not likely. I’m guessing he a) is trying to tackle the national debt, which has grown each year since 2001, and b) believes policy changes will allow federal agencies be more effective with less funding. We may rightly disagree, but so long as we don’t indulge in our media’s moralizing impulse, such a disagreement may yet be navigable.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.