A couple of months ago I had the pleasure to attend the Indiana Chamber’s statewide summit on the Indiana Vision 2025 plan. A very diverse group of a couple hundred leaders from business, community, academic and research had a very engaging and cooperative discussion. There was real energy and excitement about coming together to do big things.
This came in stunning contrast for this writer, fresh off another election cycle, a few more bruises, stories, wins and losses. Elections are seldom about big ideas, cooperation or, certainly not, bipartisanship. Election campaigns are about political combat, contrast, division, and lining up in camps. It has always been this way, varying only by tone and degrees.
This all came to mind in reviewing a recent speech by former Senator Richard Lugar at Duke University on partisanship and our political climate. An excerpt:
Perhaps the most potent force driving partisanship is the rise of a massive industry that makes money off of political discord. This industry encompasses cable news networks, talk radio shows, partisan think tanks, direct mail fundraisers, innumerable websites and blogs, social media, and gadfly candidates and commentators. Many of these entities have a deep economic stake in perpetuating political conflict. They are successfully marketing and monetizing partisan outrage. In some cases, these partisan practitioners are true believers whose economic interests coincide with their political views. But in other cases, they are just executing a business model predicated on appealing to the prejudices and fears of their adherents . . . The cumulative result is that extremism has a much greater chance of being rewarded electorally than it did even a decade ago, and good governance has suffered.
As a practitioner in the political industry, I think this is a fair criticism. However, Sen. Lugar’s assertion that “extremism has a much greater chance of being rewarded…” is a particularly important one.
Fury and fear have become the fuel of our political discord. The competition for attention in a rapid-fire, all-encompassing communication world creates a need to be creatively outrageous, loud, brief and divisive to get attention and to motivate people to act.
Policy intricacies, open and deep discussions around finding a broad vision, encouraging cooperation are, well, boring in the new and old media worlds alike. Conflict, name-calling, grenade throwing and “gotcha” politics are more entertaining and, ultimately, entertainment gets attention.
With the lines blurred and almost gone now between election campaigns and the governing/public policy making process – the incentives have escalated the trend to rhetorical excess, criticism and divisiveness in our political discourse. To steal Adam Smith’s imagery, the invisible hand of the political market provides a powerful incentive to breed fear, fury and factions in our system.
Jeff Brantley is the Indiana Chamber's VP of political affairs and leads Indiana Business for Responsive Government (IBRG). Follow him on Twitter at @jbrantleyIBRG.