Don’t Feed the Talking Heads

In an earlier post in this series, E.D. wrote that “the talking-head class–the hyper-partisan commentariat–first of all has no desire to attain even a semblance of compromise, and second of all is so absorbed with their talking points and so convinced of their own ideological infallibility, that it is unreasonable to expect anything less than divisive rhetoric.” 

He further warns:

when talking-heads politics become the standard not simply of the commentary class, but also of the politicians themselves–when the divisive, audience-pleasing, abrasive and recalcitrant politics of the Ann Coulters and Michelle Malkins of the world suddenly also become the politics of our leaders, who regardless of political affiliation, are at least supposed to be marginally pragmatic, and do their best to represent on some level America at large, we do run the risk of losing something important in our political process. 

I largely agree with this sentiment, which was precisely the situation I was concerned with in one of my early forays into this topic a few weeks ago:

[I]t’s one thing for talk-show hosts to rant and rave about “Defeatocrats,” the “homosexual mafia,” etc., since their purpose is not to persuade but is instead almost exclusively to rally the people who are already predisposed to agree with them. It’s a far different thing, however, when that attitude extends to campaign tactics, and/or a huge percentage of “talking heads,” whose purpose is at least nominally to persuade people to either vote Republican or to support a particular policy position.

This is a really important point in my mind.  Talk show hosts, hyper-partisan bloggers, and shock-value writers and filmmakers all have a legitimate place in the realm of the political, and perhaps rightly are paid tremendous amounts of money to fill that place.  But this group of people has never existed – or even attempted to exist – to persuade independents and political opponents to come over to their side of an issue.  Instead, their role has always been to “rally the troops,” so to speak and give people who already agree with them a way of feeling connected to the political process.  Simply put, their style is not intended for public consumption but is instead intended as a means of “preaching to the choir.”*

But at some point, this group was allowed to become the public face of the two major political coalitions and to take on the types of roles that, in a rational world, would be held by those with an interest in persuading undecideds and less-committed opponents.  For instance, Rush Limbaugh became not just a radio host with a massive audience, but a celebrity unto himself to whom the media would turn as a representative of all things conservative. 

And in an infotainment and media-obsessed culture, it was these types of people who garnered the biggest and best ratings on the various political shows, and got the most publicity.  And why shouldn’t they?  Controversy breeds ratings in a way that consensus and agreement could never hope to achieve. 

And so it became that our national discussion of politics revolved almost entirely around two talking heads berating each other without actually discussing anything of substance or even talking about the same topic.  But worse, being one of those talking heads became a ticket to free publicity (and thus reknown within one’s own party).  And the more outrageous and uncompromising the talking head, the better they were for ratings, and the more they would get to appear as a talking head.   Moreover, the higher the ratings and the more frequent the appearances, the better the politician would be at fundraising and creating the appearance of being a Very Important/Very Serious Person….all of which meant more influence within the party. 

But none of this could happen if the political opponents of the talking head class recognized that the Limbaughs and Moores or Coulters and Naomi Kleins are only speaking to those with whom they already agree.  Why?  Because when one recognizes to whom this group is trying to speak, one no longer feels compelled to respond to them – after all, why debate someone who is solely preaching to another choir?  And when this group gets no response outside of their own choir, they are unable to create the controversy that puts them on our television screens night after night or as the headline of memeorandum day after day.  To be sure, they will still exist and still earn plenty of money without this controversy; but they will no longer be able to lay claim to being the faces of our dominant political coalitions. 

Simply put, there’s only one way to overcome the effects of dogmatic, talk-radio, talking points ideology on our national discourse: ignore it.  In so doing, you ensure that when a dogmatist speaks, the only ones listening are other dogmatists. 

*For those keeping track, that’s two overused cliches in consecutive sentences.

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