What Happened to Our Politics?
Political campaigns have always been rough and tumble, but at least there was usually the pretense of public civility between the candidates themselves. Positions were established, issues were argued, and ideally the electorate was a bit better informed as a result.
But in 1987 everything started to change. That’s when, under Ronald Reagan, the Federal Communications Commission did away with the Fairness Doctrine, an established policy of the FCC for almost 40 years.
Simply put, in exchange for license to use the public air waves, the Fairness Doctrine required radio and TV stations to give adequate coverage to the news of the day, and to make airtime available at no cost for opposing viewpoints on major issues. Furthermore, if a public figure was attacked on the air, whether fairly or unfairly, the radio or TV station was obligated to give that person equal time to respond.
Broadcasters hated the Fairness Doctrine, of course, and as soon as it was no longer official FCC policy, the in-depth newscasts on local radio stations disappeared and were replaced by creeps like Rush Limbaugh, who could now say almost anything about anybody without the stations having to give away free air time for responses. About the same time, the FCC also shed its rule limiting the number of radio or TV stations that one corporation could own and almost before we knew it, Limbaugh and others of his ilk were being heard on thousands of stations around the country, most owned by just a handful of companies.
Meanwhile, Republican Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the U.S. House, had come up with a new and effective tactic for political campaigns. The easiest way for Republican candidates to win elections, said Newt, was simply to convince the voters that their Democrat opponents were bad people. And so attack ads began to appear.
Next there came the infamous Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, making it legal for corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited millions of dollars on behalf of their favored candidates. The money goes to political action committees and now they don’t have to reveal which special interest gave them the money.
And what’s the result of all of this? Civil discourse has all but disappeared. Decent people from both left and right are opting out of politics. Millions of dollars are spent on political campaigns and we don’t know from where the money is coming. And something like half of the electorate decides who to vote for based on “news” they get from talk radio.
Friends, we got trouble … right here in River City!
The Reagan Administration was the worst thing to happen to this country.
. . . until Trump.
And yet, the gatekeepers of public information left themselves vulnerable precisely because that which was fit to print, or fit to broadcast, was enough at variance with the lived experience of the people who became, for example, dittoheads, to make the new methods of communication successful enough to merit continued broadcast and promotion.