Bifurcated means to split or divide something into two parts. It is a term often used to describe trees, but today it can also be applied to our politics in America. It seems that right and left, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democratic have never been more at odds than in our recent history.
Politics has always been blood sport. A quote often attributed to President Harry Truman is, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” This may have been true about our politics, but our legislative process was much more collegial. Elected leaders worked together, shared power, listened to the other point of view, and knew how and when to compromise. Today, lines in the sand have become chasms, and compromise is viewed as retreat. What happened? .
Robert Bork, by any objective criteria, would be judged to be highly qualified to become Justice of the Supreme Court. He was a renowned legal scholar who had the misfortune of also being a strict constructionist of the constitution. In 1987, he was nominated by then-President Ronald Reagan to fill a vacancy on the court. Within an hour of his nomination, Senator Edward Kennedy stated, “Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government…” At that point civility ended. Bork’s nomination was withdrawn and the process has not been the same since. Ted Kennedy defined the fears America harbored about conservatives, and a new word was added to the American lexicon – “borked” – which is defined of a savaging of a candidate because of what they believe.
In 1988, Rush Limbaugh syndicated his talk radio program nationally. He was unabashedly conservative and a ratings sensation. His three hour show usually does not include any guests. To his audience, he is a “lovable little fuzz ball,” but to his enemies he is the personification of mean-spirited Republicanism that is anti-Black, anti-woman, and anti-environment. Limbaugh set the stage for conservatives like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham to follow and achieve talk radio dominance for the conservative point of view. Limbaugh provides daily talking points to his listeners in the form of arguments against what he deems liberal policies. His “dittoheads” now form a network of followers throughout America who can be quickly mobilized into opposition.
Liberals tried and failed to match Limbaugh by launching “Air America” and other programming, but their programs have all been ratings failures, leaving the right firmly in command of talk radio content. Talk radio has divided America not so much along party lines as along ideological propensity, liberal and conservative.
Trust in our elected leaders has been greatly diminished over the past few decades. Republican trust was shattered when George H.W. Bush broke his “read my lips” promise not to raise taxes. The wound deepened when Newt Gingrich “flamed out” in 1998. Democrats circled the wagons around Bill Clinton during his impeachment. His impeachment was viewed as criminal by Republicans, while his actions were considered minor, personal issues by Democrats. George W. Bush was elected in a disputed ballot election. From that point forward, to Democrats he was “selected not elected.” Our trust in our elected leaders is at an all time low as evidenced at recent town hall meetings on health care and polling data that puts Congressional approval below 30 percent.
The powerful nightly news programs and newspapers at one time were the primary shapers of opinion in America. No longer. New internet based media and content providers simply beat them to the punch on a daily basis. This has caused a divide in how we get news. Fox News is soaring in the ratings with its “fair and balanced” tagline. In response, other mainstream media has moved left. What is troubling is that stories that are broken by Fox, using good journalism, are not even carried in the mainstream media. Two recent examples are reporting on Obama appointee Van Jones, and Fox’s explosive reporting on ACORN. The New York Times missed the Jones story. When he resigned they explained their lack of coverage, writing, “Our Washington bureau was somewhat short-staffed during the height of the pre-Labor Day vacation.” Charles Gibson, anchor at ABC, when asked about the ACORN scandal laughingly stated, “It’s a mystery to me.”
The way our “two media” view tea parties, town hall protesters and the September 12th March on Washington goes far beyond a mere gap in perception or difference of opinion on what constitutes news. It defines the camps in a divided America