The West Wing, Radio, and the Religious Right

Written by: Alex Witt

In episode three of the second season of The West Wing President Bartlett, busy campaigning in the midterm elections, takes a moment to meet with radio talk show hosts to discuss the important role they play in the democratic process.  Upon addressing the group, he sees, sitting, Dr. Jenna Jacobs, a talk-show host known for incendiary statements regarding homosexuals.  After questioning her on her educational experience (Dr. Jacobs holds a doctoral degree in English literature), he brings up her homophobic statements, and she responds by citing the Bible.  Then comes an onslaught of references by President Bartlett of Biblical citations that are no longer considered acceptable, such as selling one’s daughter into slavery or stoning one’s employee for working on the Sabbath, as well as a final searing look that lasts until she defeatedly stands (Sorkin, 2000).

This scene in “The Midterms” was allegedly inspired by a letter written to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a conservative radio talk-show host known for her homophobic rants.  Dr. Laura, as she is known by listeners, similarly does not hold a Ph.D. in a relevant subject, such as theology or psychology.  Instead she holds a degree in physiology and a certificate in marriage, family, and child counseling.  Dr. Laura’s position on homosexuality is illustrated by her endorsement of books such as Restoring Sexual Identity: Hope for Women Who Struggle With Same-Sex Attraction.  She has been quoted as calling homosexuality a “deviant behavior, a dysfunctional behavior (“Dr. Laura,” 2010).”  Similarly, she once asked, “When a man cannot make love to a woman, how can that be normal (“Dr. Laura,” 2010)?”

Although Dr. Laura was targeted most directly by writer Aaron Sorkin, his rebuke was not only addressed towards her personally.  This was also a general critique of the Religious Right.  Other groups such as Focus on the Family have expressed similar feelings to those of Dr. Laura.  In fact, on their website Focus on the Family states in regards to homosexuality, “If a spouse refuses to seek help and refuses to change, it is almost impossible that your child will escape their youth without some scars and bruises (“Focus on the Family,” 2010),” thus making the assumption that it is necessary, and possible, for homosexuals to “change” their sexual preference.  In defense of their use of the Bible in condemning homosexuality, the organization states that leaders of the Gay-Christian movement claim, “Scriptures that supposedly condemn homosexual behavior have been taken out of context and do not apply to our present society (“Focus on the Family,” 2010).”  This is true; however, Sorkin counters this statement by pointing out other idiosyncrasies that the Religious Right choose to ignore.  Christians are convinced the Bible is the last word on homosexuality, yet they fail to follow many of its other mandates, such as stoning ones mother for wearing different materials or touching the skin of a dead pig.

In this episode, President Bartlett not only discusses the importance of the radio media, but also alludes to their power with the very vehement anger with which he addresses Dr. Jacobs.  According to Hollihan (2009), commercial talk radio has emerged as a major news source in modern America, especially for Republicans.  24% of Republicans listen to interactive radio shows, and 13% of Democrats do.  91% of political radio talk show content is skewed toward conservative positions, and 77% of Rush Limbaugh’s audience consider themselves conservative, versus 36% of the general public.  This gives those listeners a distorted representation of what they country truly feels.  Surrounded by people with similar political beliefs, these listeners have their opinions validated daily.  This validation from fellow listeners gives them the confidence that they are not alone in their beliefs.  Unfortunately, a very small percent of the population is actually reflected in this sample, thus making the conclusions invalid.

Hollihan also discusses the use of wedge political strategies and their negative influence on public confidence.  According to Hollihan (2009), people who have experienced this brand of negative advertising will not have faith that their interests will be represented or considered if their party is not elected.  He further elaborates that both the Democrats and Republicans are growing increasingly polarized and that this phenomena is encouraged by the emergence of hard-lined activists on both sides of the aisle, activists like Dr. Laura.  This is undermining the faith of the American people, which only contributes to apathy among citizens.

Rozell discusses the increasingly popular use of a bully pulpit by nonstate actors.  With access to media outlets increasing and becoming more polarized, more and more shows, such as those of Dr. Laura and Glenn Beck, are finding a channel for their opinions.  Rozell points out that non-governmental media users have some advantages over others, such as their ability to oversimplify issues into good versus bad dilemmas and their ability to shirk accountability when it comes to credibility (2008).  This is illustrated often in the case of the Religious Right.  Christians are good.  Gays are bad.  And don’t even try to accuse the broadcaster of being a bigot because they’re just speaking the Truth the Bible offers.  The Bible is a perfect iron curtain to hide behind, as its authors have been dead for millennia, and no one wants to be perceived as a sinful Christian-hater.  After all, who knows whether Rush Limbaugh has a direct line to God and to what extent he can influence where you spend eternity.

Dahlgren (2009), in examining the relationship between the media and political engagement, points out that the media audience is becoming more and more fragmented as a greater variety of outlets and channels become available to consumers.  This aspect has been very important in the development of the Religious Right, as conservative media stars like Glenn Beck, Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity have found outlets for their particular brand of controversial journalism.  Networks such as Fox News, radio outlets such as Sirius satellite radio, and infinite numbers of blogs have triggered a movement of “journalists” rushing to become more polarized than ever in order to gain the ratings necessary to stay on the air.  Unfortunately, these options seem to be more sensational than factual and often only enforce the political beliefs of their consumers, instead of actually enlightening them with the truth.

In the article, “Political Parody and Public Culture,” Hariman (2008) examines the relationship between the two.  He finds that parody is useful in many situations, including helping people see what they’ve done wrong and letting leaders know what they’ve done wrong, by placing emphasis on certain elements of the discourse.  This is true in the case of The West WingThe West Wing is writer Aaron Sorkin’s idea of what politics should be, not necessarily what it is.  Therefore, in the episode “The Midterms” the response by President Bartlett displays the way in which Sorkin believes moderates and liberals should handle the rhetoric of the Religious Right.  The idea is to wake up the audience, and ideally the politicians, to make them see the shortcomings of their actions.  In order to point out those shortcomings, though, a writer cannot be a dispassionate observer.  He must let his reaction become part of the story in order to make a truly honest critique (Baym, 2005).

The most relevant pieces of critical literature, however, do not simply make critiques.  They also become incorporated into real life, and The West Wing has done just that.  In February of 2006, British newspaper The Guardian published a piece listing the top ten political tips gleaned from the television program after the British House of Commons allegedly used a technique outlined in the show to pass real life legislation by waiting until the opposition was indisposed to call for a vote (Stelter, 2008).  And while President Obama’s presidential campaign was not necessarily based on the one run in the final season of the series by candidate Matthew Santos, many of the similarities were uncanny (Lawson, 2006).

Media such as The West Wing plays an important role in modern American democracy.  In a day and age in which audiences are bombarded from every side by radio shows, outrageous television “news” stations, and infinite political blogs, traditional media can no longer be solely trusted to relay the most important, truthful news that can be offered.  In many instances, it is up to the viewer to critically examine the information being fed, and draw their own conclusions.  Thankfully, there are aids such as The West Wing to help audiences make those decisions.

References

(2010, December 5). “Dr. Laura.” Retrieved from http://www.drlaura.com/

(2010, December 5). “Focus on the Family.” Retrieved from http://www.focusonthefamily.com/

Baym, G. (2005). The Daily Show: Discursive integration and the reinvention of political journalism. In Political communication. Taylor and Francis Inc.

Dahlgren, P. (2009). Media and political engagement. Cambridge University Press.

Hariman, R. (2008). Political parody and public culture. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94 (3), 247-272.

Hollihan, T. A. (2009). Uncivil war: Political campaigns in a media age. Boston, MA:

Bedford/St. Martin’s

Lawson, M. (2006, February 3). Ten top political tips from The West Wing. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/

Rozell, M.J., & Mayer, J.D. (Eds.). (2008). Media power, media politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Sorkin, A. (Writer), & Graves, A. (Director). (2000). The midterms [Television series episode]. In J. Wells (Producer), The west wing. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers Burbank Studios.

Stelter, B. (2008, October 29). Following the script: Obama, McCain and “The West Wing.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Advertisements

The Misinformation Permeating the National Dialogue and What President Obama Can Do About It

Written by: Michael Baharaeen

Given today’s political climate, one will hear many different talking points coming out of Washington as to how we must address our problems. Unfortunately, voters are also likely to hear a plethora of misinformation during these debates (albeit mostly from the Right), and an overwhelming portion of them are not likely to discern fact from fiction. Some will unequivocally trust what their elected official tells them through various newsletters or town hall events, and others may simply not want to be presented with information contrary to what they believe, stirring up major cognitive dissonance in their minds. However, in order for our country to even begin a national dialogue on how best to address the problems confronting us, it is vital that the proper information is conveyed. Let us first address a few of the ubiquitous mistruths.

1. “The health care mandate is socialism.” The individual mandate is a part of President Obama’s health care plan. It requires all persons to purchase health insurance and was originally an idea put forth by the Republican Party during the health care debate of the early ‘90s as a counterweight to President Clinton’s proposal. Initially, when proposed by the GOP, the whole idea behind the mandate was that of “personal responsibility,” but when Obama proposed the exact same concept, thereby rendering the public responsible for making sure they were covered and would not cause a spike in everyone else’s premiums by showing up in an emergency room uninsured, the idea all of a sudden became the crux of a diabolical scheme for a government takeover of the entire health care system (incidentally, “government takeover of healthcare” was dubbed “Lie of the Year,” by Politifact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, fact-checking organization).

The only part of the president’s health care plan that is “socialized” is when those who cannot afford to buy their own insurance will be subsidized by the government, just like those on Medicaid.  And Medicare. And TRICARE. And those who use the VA. In fact, one could say that the health care bill that was passed was a gift to the private industry! Since there was no public, government insurance option in the final law, the bill essentially makes everyone purchase insurance from the private sector…which is about as far from government-run anything as you can get. I am not a big fan of this aspect of the bill, but the vital thing is to clear up the notion that this plan somehow involves Obama deciding whether or not each citizen in the country gets to see a doctor.

2. “The economy is still failing.” This is quite a pervasive misconception by the general public, perhaps due to the high level of unemployment. In fact, the economy has turned around significantly, new jobs are being added by the private sector every quarter (granted, some quarters see more significant growth than others), and some companies are seeing record profits. The reason that job reports continue to be so abysmal is because the federal government, in its efforts to cut the deficit, are taking away public service jobs. But in fact, GM, which was saved from bankruptcy through the auto bailout under Obama, has recently begun building the only subcompact cars in America. And, the S&P 500 has climbed back to the same zone it was in prior to the financial meltdown. So why is this myth of a failing (overall) economy becoming a seemingly contagious belief?

3. “Balancing the budget is more important than creating jobs.” Now, no one has explicitly ever said this, but why bother? We can see this playing out not only in Washington – where conventional wisdom says that the deficit takes precedence over everything else, and, hence, we have had zero jobs bills presented thus far this Congress – but in the American public, too. A recent Gallup poll on America’s priorities showed that, out of those surveyed, reigning in government spending took precedence over tackling unemployment. What this essentially means is that the Democrats have failed to fight for control of the national conversation because job growth should have been at the top of that list. This is not to say that we must put the deficit conversation on the back burner, but the fact is that the government must first spend to create jobs (or, at the very least, not cut funds that take away existing jobs), and it is critical that this be conveyed to the public in order to shift public opinion.

What makes this issue even more pertinent is a recent call from many conservatives to force the federal government to adopt a Balanced Budget Amendment. This is the quintessential example of mixed priorities. In theory, one might think that such a proposal sounds fairly sensible. However, problems begin to arise when the economy hits a recession and the government is unable to deficit spend due to constitutional restraints. This either results in tax hikes or cuts to programs that citizens are able to enjoy (imagine if we had to get rid of Medicare altogether, as a large portion of the government’s funds are allocated to this program, because we were not allowed to have a deficit). Examples of this can be seen at the state level, where every state in the Union, save for Vermont, has adopted a balanced budget amendment to their state constitution. This is not to say that in the absence of these amendments, spending should be reckless, but that extra leeway is sometimes needed.

As has been shown in the past, the government needs to be able to deficit spend in these times to give the economy a boost. In fact, in 2003, approximately 90% of the members of the American Economic Association agreed with the statement, “If the federal budget is to be balanced, it should be done over the course of the business cycle, rather than annually.” Notable Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has made comments to that same effect. This leads us to the conclusion that in order to focus on jobs, the deficit must be temporarily sacrificed, even if it is already fairly high. The basic idea is this: if the government spends money on various projects (revamping our infrastructure, building high-speed rail systems, tending to the needs of our cities, etc.), thus requiring a need to hire people, those workers will have more money in their pockets. They are then likely to spend money in other sectors of the economy, thereby driving up demand in private sector businesses. And, in order for said businesses to keep up with that demand, they will have to hire more employees, who will then have money in their pockets. And around and around we go. It is basic demand-side economics, a theory which has been dubbed socialism by conservatives, but a theory that works nonetheless. Once unemployment has been tamed, the government can then slightly raise revenue to begin alleviating the deficit.

The recent problem has derived from the fact that in order to cut the deficit, politicians have been voting to cut funding for public employee jobs, and in return raising unemployment. (It should be noted that the federal government is the largest employer in the country, so we are talking large numbers and different types of jobs that could be impacted by these cuts, including teachers, fire fighters, and police officers.) The mayor of a town in Texas, which recently saw layoffs at their police station, came to the conclusion that the lack of public safety officers could be resolved if everyone in town would just buy a gun. It can be a vicious circle if we choose to make it one, but we can also spin it in a more positive direction. It should seem like putative knowledge, then, that the Republican philosophy of cutting spending in the face of high unemployment in order to create jobs (which seems only slightly counterintuitive if one stops to think about it for just a few seconds) will only exacerbate the problem. This leads us to the next misconception.

4. “Tax cuts for the rich create jobs.” This fallacy is possibly one of the most prevalent (and untrue) canards circulating the national dialogue today. Tax cuts for the rich don’t create any more jobs than if they were not given any tax cuts, not to mention that suggesting the government dish out its money to the super rich after just conveying that the number one priority should be cutting the deficit seems slightly counterintuitive. But as we have already discussed the deficit debate, let us examine tax rates in the light of job creation.

During President Reagan’s tenure in office, the income tax rate on the bracket for top earners was cut from 70% to 28%, and through his philosophy of “Reaganomics,” it was assumed that this extra money would trickle down to those in lower economic brackets because the rich would use it to create jobs. But all that was created from those cuts was a deficit so massive that Reagan ultimately had to raise taxes 6 times before leaving office. Another great example of the failure of this view is seen through the Bush tax cuts. After both rounds of tax cuts, Bush created a grand total of 1.1 million jobs while in office. To his credit, that number was slightly higher before the economic recession which began in 2007. But compare this to President Bill Clinton: approximately 11 million jobs were created during each of his terms. One gaping difference? Clinton kept tax rates for the top earner’s bracket 3% higher than Bush. Whether this higher rate actually made a difference in helping create jobs is debatable, but the point remains that the economy is rather ambivalent with regard to tax cuts. However, higher taxes can certainly help balance the budget (did you hear that, Tea Party deficit hawks?), as can be seen by juxtaposing Clinton’s giant surplus to the all-too-well-known deficit that Bush so kindly left Obama.

Something to note: Ironically, the introduction of tax increases that Clinton inherited, which led to the economic expansion of the early 1990s, began under Bush, Sr., the same tax increases which ultimately cost him his job (remember, “Read my lips: NO NEW TAXES”?)

5. “Republicans are the fiscally responsible party.” Do I even have to mention the fact that Vice President Cheney infamously said, “Ronald Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter”? In fact, Reagan had to raise taxes six times while in office in order to help shore up the mess that was made via Reaganomics. Sorry, “Reagan conservatives,” but it’s true. Google it.

Bush spent our way into two wars without even once considering paying for it; he passed two infamous rounds of tax cuts which failed to spur job growth whatsoever; and he fought for the costly Medicare Part D program. Reagan never balanced a budget. Bush Sr. ultimately had to raise taxes to tackle his budget problems. In fact, the last Republican president to balance a budget was Dwight Eisenhower, who, by today’s standards, would be decried as “far left,” for he was surely more liberal than President Obama. So when today’s GOP touts fiscal responsibility, take it with a grain of salt.

 

The consequence of this slew of misinformation and of voters’ seeming unfamiliarity with the facts is that politicians who bank on voter ignorance then use these untruths as a political tool at the expense of creating a misinformed body politic. Permeating messages such as “government takeover” or “they’re coming for your guns” or “man-dog marriages” are sure to mobilize their voters en masse. And as long as politicians can give their base a reason to get out and vote on Election Day, who cares whether people are well-informed? The problem for Democrats seems to be that because they hold such a large umbrella and encompass a wide array of voters, they have trouble standing behind one unified message, let alone mobilizing all of their voters at once.

Now, let us bring this dilemma into the debate surrounding today’s politics. No one in Washington is able to reach consensus on just about anything. President Obama and the Democrats, though they have good, progressive arguments to make, are incapable of enacting common sense policies because the far right has become so convinced that these policies are bound to take our country toward socialism or toward becoming a Third World country (I didn’t realize that standing up for the middle class and championing programs that strengthen it to ensure that it doesn’t erode into oblivion was such a touchy position to take). It appears as though this is all the result of a systematic failure. Republicans are being forced to move further and further to the right, because if they don’t, they are likely to be challenged in a primary election by a Tea Party candidate. And Democrats, in fear of being perceived as “just as bad as the other side,” are caving in to every single GOP demand out of some sense of “bipartisanship,” in which case, what is the purpose of even having two parties? (And this, of course, leaves the political spectrum with a harshly skewed center.)

It is imperative, now more than ever, that the president take control of the conversation. The last time I checked, he was elected to the presidency on the ticket of the Democratic Party, so it is not crazy for one to think that when he enters a room to discuss our nation’s problems with his political adversaries, instead of ceding the high ground right off the bat by saying “How much would you like to cut, $3 trillion or $4 trillion?” he would put his foot down and say, “Let’s get something straight: my party controls the Senate and the White House. If you want to focus on the deficit and you want us to concede spending cuts, you are going to raise taxes on the super-rich. If you’re not willing to do that, we don’t have anything to discuss.” If Obama would actually start from the left, then he would force the Republicans to meet somewhere in the actual middle. When he starts negotiations practically from the center, the result is inexorably tailored more to the Republicans’ liking than to the wishes of the other voters in this country. It is crucial for Obama to realize that he has to start fighting for progressive change, because while more voters in this country will identify themselves as conservative rather than liberal, poll after poll has shown that, when questioned on the issues, these same voters will overwhelmingly take a more progressive position.

For his sake, the president needs to start fighting for these causes. And the number one cause right now should be doing whatever it takes to put people back to work, because the simple truth, as a matter of principle, is this: high unemployment lowers any chance Obama has of being reelected. No sitting president has ever been reelected when the unemployment rate has been over 9%. We’ve seen the myths of the “unfettered free market” at work. We’ve seen how detrimental conservative policies are. We’ve seen the gap between the rich and poor in this country increase dramatically due to trickle-down economics, or, as Paul Krugman has dubbed it, “voodoo economics.” We cannot afford to go back to these policies.

If we want to put America back on sound footing, and if Obama would like a second term in office, we must start pursuing more progressive policies. Is there anyone who sincerely believes that it would not be in the best interest of the Republican Party to ensure that the economy stays unhealthy so that they will have a scapegoat come 2012? Now, some may see that assertion as out-of-line – how could I possibly suggest that politicians are only looking out for their own skin and reelection prospects and not for the betterment of the people? (That is a rhetorical question, by the way.) Others may believe that I am being too cynical. For those in the latter camp, I urge you to take a hard look at the current political climate and then ask yourselves whether or not it may just be a little naïve to assume that (most) politicians have the best interests of the people in their minds when making – and this is indisputable – political calculations.

So I will take this opportunity to convey a message to President Obama: get in front of the national conversation! You have the facts on your side. Instead of submitting to the Republicans at every turn, spend your time talking to the American populace and explaining why progressive reforms are needed, why they make sense, and why we cannot return to the exact same policies which brought our country to its knees only a few short years ago and which will not address the problem of growing unemployment. If you spend your time talking to the voters, not only will it cast you in a better light, but you will also have a more informed public, and that is crucial: as our friend Stephen Colbert has said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Ergo, a better-informed electorate means more Democratic voters.

http://www.bls.gov/schedule/archives/empsit_nr.htm