The Day Crossfire Died
by David Gastwirth
The topic for this week’s Road to the White House – entitled “The War Between Policy & Politics” – featured Raphael Bostic, a USC professor of public policy and former Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a Senior Fellow at the USC Price School and the political analyst for KNBC, Los Angeles. Jeffe made a strong and somewhat surprising assertion to begin the conversation, claiming that there should not be a “war” between politics and public policy, because “you cannot have policy without politics – politics in the best sense of the concept.” She supported her claim by saying that politics is what you have to do in a democracy to make public policy — you have to compromise, you have to logroll. However, she lamented that there is a war between politics and policy today. It has never been as aggressive as it is now, and we cannot move policy because those who make policy will not engage in politics.
So how did the “war” get so hot? Various culprits have been identified, most notably political parties and ideological extremism on both sides. Polls show that there is mounting cynicism in this country, with citizens distrustful of both parties. Jeffe noted how institutional arrangements – especially political primaries in the context of “safe” districts – have contributed to this phenomenon. Despite various reform efforts, it is unlikely that the ceasefire to this “war” will come from political party forces. So where can we look to for partisan peace?
This week on Rock Center, Ted Kopel – one of America’s most notable television news figures – did a segment on the growth of partisan media and the negative impact that polarized news has on American life. Brian Williams introduces the segment by saying that the media has gone from “watchdogs to combatants” in one generation. After offering the usual discussion of Walter Chronkite as a high priest, it includes a clip from Jon Stewart on CNN’s longtime hit political affairs show Crossfire, with Stewart begging the co-hosts – one from each side of the political spectrum – to stop arguing. Well Crossfire was soon cancelled, replaced with a plethora of shows across the growing ranks of cable news networks anchored by fiercely partisan – often hotheaded – hosts. Pick your favorite on Fox News or MSNBC. Other sides are presented on these shows via special guests (as opposed to co-hosts), and the power imbalance is quite clear. Divergent views can even have their microphones disconnected. Crossfire, which ran from 1982 to 2005, offered co-equals from divergent political views debating current policy issues, while today’s shows offer lopsided opinions to like-minded viewers. Americans no longer have to put up with both Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala – each bringing stature and support to divergent views. They can just pick the guy – and views – they like and get their fill 24 hours a day.
Most people blame politics – namely politicization – with our sad state of affairs. But maybe it is a resurgence of politics, rightly understood, that is this country’s last best hope for solving some of our most pressing social, economic, foreign, and environmental policy challenges. It would be great if true statesman emerged from the political poles, but there is no reason to believe that our current crop of politicians have the will or stomach for principled negotiation. A more reasonable first step in the process is getting both sides to start talking to each other – even if it takes the form of argumentation. Like it or not, the media can play a critical role in facilitating that dialogue. Building on Brian Williams’ history of the media, their role in this century can be that of problem-solver. Whether or not ratings – which translate into advertising dollars – will support that adaptation remains to be seen. But the lesson to be learned, particularly for Jon Stewart, is to be careful what you wish for…..the end of battle often does not lead to a lasting peace or productive reconstruction.