April 9, 2013

Colbert v. Stewart — And That’s the Way it Isn’t

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The two-party system is not about politics anymore — it’s a culture war.

This isn’t a new idea. It was roughly formed in the 1920’s and re-defined in 1991 when James Hunteron’s Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America described an increasingly definable polarity on most of the hot-button sociopolitical issues of the age — a power struggle over who gets to determine society’s stances on right and wrong. This power struggle has existed historically between a stringently-defined progressive left and conservative right.

Seems like a stereotype, no? But in contemporary politics, stereotypes trump substance every time. Where are we now that the “most trusted man in America” isn’t laying it all out and then telling us “and that’s the way it is?” We are all caricatures of our political leanings — Stephen Colbert Conservatives or Jon Stewart Liberals. And rather than facts, or historical knowledge, or frame of reference, or conscientiousness, it’s increasingly true that an American voter is defined by their one-or-the-other stance in the culture war as decided by the ideologies that were prevalent during their coming-of-age and their stance on a handful of contentious issues.

“Soft news” programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have been the subject of a vast array of recent research. Jon Stewart’s social impact isn’t to be denied — a 2009 TIME poll found him to be the unequivocal answer to the question “Now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, who is America’s most trusted newscaster?”  He’s credited with the Senate’s passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and “The Daily Show Effect” is a sociological term that refers to the way that soft news programs have bred an increased self-confidence in young people about their discerning and intelligent understanding of politics.

While Stewart is a well-known liberal, the spin-off character Stephen Colbert is right-winged, God-fearing, hyperpatriotic and “factose intolerant.” He coined the word “truthiness,” which he defines as “the quality by which one purports to know something emotionally or instinctively, without regard to evidence or intellectual examination.” In 2005, the New York Times listed it as one of nine words that defined the zeitgeist of the year and in 2010, discussed the status of political discourse saying that extensive effort goes into “disentangling reliable political Twitter posts from that are merely truthy.”

Overwhelmingly, it seems to be the case that Americans base their political affiliation on the “truthiness” of ideologies as well as their stance on a select few “wedge issues.” Wedge issues are notoriously a Republican weapon. In the 1960’s they provoked conflict over issues of crime, welfare, affirmative action, school prayer and gay rights in order to shave Southern evangelicals and Northern Catholics from the Democrats. In the 1970’s abortion become the Conservative linchpin. Today? Women, money, gays and guns.

These issues have come to serve as a social litmus test, comforting in their simplicity. Pro-life, anti-Obamacare, gun-toting crusaders for the defense of the hegemony vs. the pinko pro-choice militant feminist marriage-ruiners. If you have money you’re a Republican. If you’re under age 25 you’re a Democrat (“For now,” says your father under his breath). Break it down to your intonation when you use the word “neoliberalism” and whether or not you changed your FB profile picture last week.

The effects of “truthiness” can be seen best when looking at the split-voting of the Generation X-ers in 2012. For the older members of this constituency — those who entered adulthood during the Reagan presidency and subsequent boom years of the early 1990’s, there was a faith in independently-orchestrated success that was then confounded by the economic recession. The term “Reagan babies” names a sub-generation that has been defined as “the new generation of Republican politicians who were politically whelped during Reagan’s presidency, who rose to awareness as the Golden Age of conservatism dawned, shined and then faded into the moderate Republicanism of the Bushes and the Democratic centrism of Bill Clinton,” and Romney’s VP-nom Paul Ryan has been dubbed their King.

Ryan and Romney drew most of the older Gen-X-ers who came to the polls with stars in their eyes at the prospect of trimming social programs and the tax burden. It’s an ideological stance on self-sufficiency leading to prosperity, a “truthiness” that ignores the facts:  the tax burden for middle-income Americans was significantly larger under Reagan than it is under Obama, America spends the smallest percentage of their GDP on social programs of all the industrialized nations and social spending simply is not the cause of the deficit.

Younger Generation X-ers, those who became adults during the end of the Clinton years and the beginning of that eight-year Period That Shall Not Be Named voted Obama largely along the lines of a different kind of “truthiness.” The Occupy Wall Street Movement is predicated on the exploitation of the 99% by Wall Street in the years leading up to the fiscal crisis, as well as in the aftermath. It’s a movement that is sensitive to growing income inequality and, because its participants were molded by a moment of stark transition, it yearns for justice via a correction that would be just as swift. Truly, big business suffered less from their mistakes and recovered quicker. Truly income inequality is a problem. But empirically it has little to do with the policies of wealthy ne’er do-wells like Romney.  The income gap has been growing steadily since 1979 in a phenomenon dubbed “The Great Divergence,” which has been statistically proven to be much more highly correlated with failures in the education system to keep up with a more high-tech job market, the inflation-racing college tuition soar and the fact that Americans positively refuse to talk about class structure.

So why don’t we know “the way it is,” anymore? We’ve been bamboozled into caring about generic ideologies and a handful of issues that, while important, ar

e highlighted primarily in the interest of breeding polarization. Bipartisanship in the interest of progress isn’t an impossibility — recent polls show that 58% of Americans favor the legalization of gay marriage and when you break it down, that number contains 52% of GOP-leaning independents and 40% of Republicans age 18-29. So why can’t a bipartisan effort to become informed rise to the challenge? Why can’t we treat Colbert and Stewart like what they are — entertainment, wedge issues like what they are—a part of the picture, and most importantly, the facts like what they are — imperative? Culture wars don’t benefit constituents; they benefit politicians who want easily determinable demographics.

It would be infinitely more fun to have political debates where everyone involved can rattle off real historical evidence, real numbers, real proof, sans-bias, lean back, sigh, and say:

“And that’s the way it is.”

Original Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany