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Media Ideologues Are Fueling Political Discourse ... So What's New About That?

November 10, 2003|Kevin Phillips

Pundits and politicians alike are rightly paying attention to an emerging literary trend: the importance of bestselling ideological diatribes penned by movie, TV and radio talk-show hosts -- personalities like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter on the conservative right and Al Franken and Michael Moore on the liberal left. Though they do not rank as the stuff of latter-day Lincoln-Douglas debates, they may signal that U.S. politics are moving into another of the confrontation processes that have marked past electoral watersheds.

The simplistic aspect of most of their arguments only facilitates appeal to the broad audience reachable by broadcasts or movies. The authors simply package in print more or less the same conversations, castigations and condemnation that they offer through celluloid or on the airwaves. It's not unreasonable to call it ideo-tainment.

Which does not make it unimportant or without influence. The balkanization of the U.S. media in the Internet Age -- and the related preference of many broadcast and print media for not rocking too many political and economic boats -- has also played a role. The ideo-tainers market perceptions and accusations that are downplayed by the establishment media in the name of centrism.

And so the conservative rant-meisters (and mistresses) have a point when they talk about liberal political correctness, elite media cultural biases and the left's innate disinterest in submarines and artillery and the people who operate them. The liberal howlers, in turn, make valid points about Washington lies, military profiteers, White House subservience to the wealthy and abusive aspects of globalization that do not get enough attention from careful centrists. These truths are why both sides can command large audiences.

The fact that these audiences are growing suggests that behind the facade of alleged popular disinterest in politics, interest is actually stirring. It might even be moving toward the sort of confrontation that has often accompanied national political transitions. Coming every 25 to 35 years, these have typically counted simplistic arguments and even scurrilous broadsides among their drumbeats.

Anyone who thinks that the dialogue between the O'Reillys, Limbaughs and Coulters on one hand and the Moores, Frankens and Jim Hightowers on the other side is raucous and shrill has only to pick up a history book or two. The bitter name-calling in 1800 between the newspapers backing a second presidential term for Federalist John Adams and the Democratic-Republican journals backing Thomas Jefferson makes Limbaugh and Moore look like Walter Cronkite.

By the time of the 1860 election, the epochal contest in which Lincoln challenged slavery, the literary lines were just as angrily drawn. We learn about Harriet Beecher Stowe's book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in school, but there were dozens of other abolitionist texts now forgotten.

The 1896 election, in which populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan carried the banner of monetary relief for battered farmers, created another literary battlefield. A man named W.H. Harvey earned the nickname "Coin" because of his glib books purporting to make the case for monetary radicalism. Republicans replied with tributes to gold coinage that would embarrass a 5th Avenue jeweler.

In the early 1930s, as the nation debated Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, one of the most important voices was Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest who attacked FDR via a hugely popular radio program. He unsuccessfully backed his own slate of third-party candidates, including one for president, in 1936.

In 1968, when the Democratic presidential era that FDR began came to an end, the singers, pundits, authors and actresses faced off again alongside the politicians. I was on the Republican side, but my memory is that Democrats and liberals had the vast proportion of the authors and entertainers. The great upsurge in bestselling books was on the liberal side -- "The Greening of America" by Charles Reich comes to mind -- but although these were a litmus of confrontation, they were not a litmus of liberal victory.

Arguably, the biggest surge of books and programs during such periods comes from the ideology that has been in power for decades and has unprecedented media access and ideological cockiness. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, liberals took advantage of that impetus to propound philosophic excesses and oddball sociology that turned off swing voters. It was a failing that conservatives might keep in mind today with their books of global empire and literary accusations of treason.

Kevin Phillips is the author of "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich" (Broadway, 2003).

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