After a dear colleague died at age fifty-eight, my wife forced me to join the gym so that I might avoid a similar fate for her and our small children. I have enjoyed the experience immensely except for one thing. The treadmills I like to use, the ones under the big fan, face directly into the screens playing MSNBC’s evening line-up.
Each night, I see a big, stocky fellow with florid countenance alternately standing and pacing around and imploring viewers to buy into the utter depravity of the Republican party. He’s like some sort of politicized Jean Calvin and the liberal Democrats, only the ones who support a public option in health care, are the elect. His name is Ed Schultz. And he is no savvy political analyst or careful cultural commentator. He is a preacher, a secular preacher (maybe preaching the old Church of Christ without Christ), but what he mostly seems to care about is demonizing the strange members of homo politicus who unaccountably vote with the GOP. Mostly, the show is unrelentingly dumb and full of the host’s self-satisfaction.
Now, I’ve seen bad political talk before, but not quite at this level. Certainly, shows like Keith Olbermann’s, Rachel Maddow’s, and Ed Schultz’s are purposeful counterfeits of earlier versions on the right. Rush Limbaugh probably deserves most of the credit, but he maintains much of our affection because of his sheer talent and style. His show was something new. Sui generis. No one has done it as well since and he deserves something of a special dispensation because he was the primal voice crying out against the soft liberalism of the established media. They all tilted left, but hid it behind a facade of even-handedness. Rush was the one who destroyed the illusion, three hours at a time.
Rush’s success, though, has led to an industry of imitators left and right. Taken en masse, the results aren’t pretty, nor do they bode well for our democratic habits. Even for those of us who try to cultivate a well-informed take on politics, there is no denying the little trickle of pleasing brain chemicals that run across the grey matter while a writer or speaker confirms our convictions for us. The more we indulge that impulse and the more narrow our sampling of ideas, the worse we will be at actual persuasion and compromise.
This is not a call for smart moderates or any other such foolishness. The middle is right occasionally, but it is also often the preserve of the perpetually uncertain. Instead, I’m simply suggesting that it would be nice to see someone try to take on politics in a more balanced way. I still remember the Crossfire programs of the late 1980′s and the Buckley Firing Line shows, too. Is there anything on offer today that is their equal? If so, I’d appreciate commenters or fellow bloggers bringing it to my attention.