We Can’t Even Agree on a Virus. Why Are We Surprised?

So fighting a worldwide pandemic has now become just another partisan issue to be debated endlessly on cable news. Science used to matter. Today? Not so much. Are you on Team Fauci or Team Trump? In time of a national crisis, unfortunately we pick our mascots and head to the battlefield

But these disagreements are not new, and they extend far beyond the really important stuff like whether or not a killer virus is among us. If you live in California, your favorite ice cream is Neapolitan, yep, that vanilla, chocolate and strawberry combination that our grandmoms generously dished out in perfect squares wrapped in paper at Sunday dinners.

In Texas? You guessed it- vanilla.

And television shows?  Well, we all like the same TV don’t we?  Not according to Experian Research. Dems like comedies with an edge, Saturday Night Live and anything penned by Aaron Sorkin. And Bill Maher? Of course, they like Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel- you get the picture.

Republicans in this study preferred HGTV, procedural network dramas, Hallmark Original movies and a little show called Duck Dynasty. This study preceded the current Netflix phenomenon “

Tiger King.” While the results aren’t in just yet for that theatrical masterpiece, which is reminiscent of a circus sideshow, my gut says that it appeals across party lines. Hey, don’t blame me. I just call ‘em as I see ‘em. Could Tiger King be the ticket to bridge the great divide? Perhaps we’ll find out in Season 8 of the West Wing. Oh, that’s right, there is no Season 8. Damn you Sorkin.

By now you’ve read about the cable news divide ad nauseam. But in case you’ve been in a Rip Van Winkle coma since 1996 or missed the movie “Bombshell,” let’s take another look. While most people think age and ethnicity is what determines who watches what, Public Opinion Strategies points out that it is actually something else. “The education demographic is what drives the differences between Fox News and MSNBC viewers.  As 2016 exit polls demonstrated, education level has become the new political divide in America. President Trump won voters with less than a college education, while Hillary Clinton won among voters with a college degree – and in the two years since the election, their choice for their news source follows this pattern as well.”

So we are all dug in, and we have little tolerance for those sharing perspectives that are just not our cup of tea. We visit news sites that reflect our views. One team watches Hannity. The other Maddow. But it wasn’t always this way.

As Steve Kornacki brilliantly details in his book “The Red and the Blue,” the modern day version of politics as blood sport actually began in 1984 when a little known Congressman from Georgia by the name of Newt Gingrich declared war on Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and all Republican moderates in that body. He did so by using a relatively new, little known, quirky television network serving mainly political junkies and those who couldn’t sleep at night, known as the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, better known today at C-SPAN. Chartered in 1977 and going live for the first time in 1979, it was really an afterthought that no one paid any attention to. 1984 would change all of that. Thank you George Orwell.

In its early days, the network reached 20 million Americans at a time when there really was no other cable news. In fact a guy named Roger Ailes was working as a media consultant for the Campaign to Reelect Ronald Reagan at the time, and Sean Hannity was painting houses in Santa Barbara, California. In this void, Gingrich and his small band of brothers known as the Conservative Opportunity Society recognized that it wasn’t passing legislation or compromise that mattered, it was the fight. In their eyes, the moderate Republicans were a bunch of wusses, and if nothing else they could conduct a full blown partisan assault every single night for free, talking to millions of Americans who thought the system was rigged. And that it was rigged by the idiots in Washington. Your congressman. My congressman. It didn’t matter.  In the bible according to Gingrich, anyone not in his band of merry men was an idiot and needed to be destroyed.

So you see, we didn’t just suddenly wake up one day to decide that science doesn’t matter anymore. In a truly partisan war, facts can’t matter. All that can matter is what team you are on. If you’re shirts, then we are skins, and we are going to kick your ass.

It’s a straight line:  C-SPAN being weaponized was the first step in the “take no prisoners, collateral damage be damned” approach to governance that led to the “Gingrich Revolution” of 1994. In that Clinton mid-term election, Republicans gained 54 House seats while picking up 9 in the Senate. The Grand Old Party took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. It led to the formation of the Tea Party in 2009, and it fostered a birtherism conspiracy theory to attack the first African American to ever be elected President. That movement was the kindling for a future President’s ride down an escalator on June 16, 2015.

No, we didn’t just get here, but it’s a really scary place. It feels like we are all stuck in  an Escape Room, only this isn’t a party game. If our republic is to survive, we better find the key real soon.

Don Mohler is the former Baltimore County Executive and President and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He may be reached at don@donmohler.com.

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