Political-media complex

Every day’s news contains signs of our political-media complex, which is similar to our military-industrial complex: an interlocking and interacting set of organizations and interests that has powerful tendencies over time. We need to get increasingly clear about how it works, how it affects us, and what we might do.

Our political-media complex includes three main businesses. One is the political business, which comprises all of the people and organizations who make a living by acting in politics: Incumbents and wannabes; their political and policy staffs; pollsters, consultants, and lobbyists and their outfits; people who work for alphabet organizations (DNC, the RNC, etc.); and so on.

One visible product of the political business is a stream of messages in the following form: “The other guys are bad. Just look at what they are doing now. Send money.”

People who study the matter tell us that our politics have been very competitive in recent decades, and that the competitiveness has consequences.

[T]he period since 1980 stands out as the longest sustained period of competitive balance between the parties since the Civil War. Our politics is distinctive for its narrow and switching national majorities. Nearly every recent election has held out the possibility of a shift in party control of one institution or another….

Competition fuels party conflict by raising the political stakes of every policy dispute. When control of national institutions hangs in the balance, no party wants to grant political legitimacy to its opposition by voting for the measures it champions. After all, how can a party wage an effective campaign after supporting or collaborating with its opposition on public policy? Instead, parties in a competitive environment will want to amplify the differences voters perceive between themselves and their opposition.

One possible implication: If we know we are participating in highly competitive politics, then we need to demand bipartisan cooperation, to offset the effects of competition.

Then there’s the news business, which includes all of the people and organizations that make a living, or try to make a living, by supplying “news,” “analysis,” “commentary,” and “opinion.” People and organizations in this business also are caught in fierce competition, for visibility in the 24-7 torrent of infotainment. At the same time, in a changing media environment, many of them are trying to find business models that will succeed.

Those problems tend to press them all in the direction of chasing: ambulance chasing, explosion chasing, scandal chasing, conflict chasing, controversy chasing, etc. The news takes the constant supply of new material from the political business and turns it into view-getting drama by applying a set of techniques that could be familiar to anyone who pays attention while consuming news. Those include provocative framing, vivid photo or video, incendiary quote, extensive speculation, and selective treatments of evidence.

The news business operates like an amplifier for the political business: It makes everything louder, sharper, harsher, etc. And, it gives access to its microphones quite selectively, to people who shout more, offer more provocative framing, give more incendiary quote, play fastest and loosest with evidence, and so on. That is, the main bias in the news is in favor of polarized partisans, left and right.

And of course, we can have the news channel we like. We can find the outlets and speakers who agree with us, and we can live in our bubbles, where it can seem to us that everyone, just everyone, agrees with us. Our bubbles (we construct them) tend to make us unfit for living in our actual society.

One possible implication: Deliberately get outside your bubble

Finally, there is the social media business, which offers us at least the illusion of having a voice and participating in the great conversation. In the social media, we further amplify the political and news businesses. Again, we can have the channels that suit us. And, since we are amateurs, what we produce tends strongly to be even less civil and reasonable than what happens in the political and news businesses.

Now, all three businesses have impeccable rationalizations, including “representative democracy,” “informed citizenry,” and “citizen participation.” All three businesses have ideals and hopes, particularly this: We can get better at this. Most powerfully, I think, they all have the question, “What’s the alternative?”

Perhaps for us ordinary Americans, the most important thing to notice is this: The people in the political business can’t succeed without getting our votes. The news business can’t succeed without getting our subscriptions and views. And the social media business can’t succeed if we don’t write, read and “like.” We Americans get the political business, the news business, and the social media business we deserve. Maybe not what we want or what we need, but what we deserve.

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“Compromise”

David Leonardt shows us how far we and our Congress have sunk into polarized partisanship, by proposing a “compromise”: If Republicans would stop trying to ram through secret health care bills in the middle of the night, Democrats would stop obstructing nominations at the highest rate in our history. Just let that sink in for a moment, and notice that we are very far from being a functioning polity.

We all like to think of ourselves as heroes in our own stories. But as polarized partisans, left and right, we are not heroes. More nearly, we are some sort of co-dependents who enable each other to persist in destructive and self-destructive behavior. Crucially, we supply each other with a Boogie Man who can be be vilified and demonized in the attempt to mobilize our respective bases and contributors.

As polarized partisans, we are likely to regard ourselves as combatants. We fail to see how we also are collaborators, who work together to make it impossible to govern ourselves.

The USA is not some invulnerable edifice that will remain standing no matter how long or how hard we fight with each other. More nearly, it is a fragile set of traditions and understandings that we can destroy—and arguably are destroying– by unrestrained partisan conflict.

Immigration numbers games

According to several reports, Senators David Perdue (R – Arkansas) and Tom Cotton (R – Georgia) have introduced legislation to limit legal immigration, partly by reducing the number of green cards issued each year from 1 million to 500,000. The senators argue that the lower number reflects “historical norms” for immigration. The senators are speaking in counts.

In criticizing the bill, David J. Bier brings in evidence from a report in Cato. Bier talks about a rate: The count of new legal permanent residents each year, divided by the count of people in the United States. “From 1820 to 2017, the immigration rate averaged 0.45 percent of the population annually. In 2017, that rate was 0.32 percent.” The Cato article reports that the rate has varied greatly across our history: The low was .0.02% in 1933, 1934, 1943, 1944, and 1945. The high was 1.5% or slightly more in 1850, 1851, 1854, and 1882.

In 2016, The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report on integration of immigrants into American society, and another on economic and fiscal consequences of immigration. Those reports and a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center offered a third kind of number—the proportion of persons who live in the United States, who also were born abroad to parents who were not US citizens. In those reports, the proportion of us born abroad was about 14% in 2014. In the big immigrations of the 19th century, that number peaked at about 15%. The low for that number was a little less than 5%, around 1970.

There’s no big disagreement here about the extent of immigration: 1 million immigrants (Perdue and Cotton’s number) entering a country of 310 million would be 0.32 percent (Bier’s number). One million entering every year for the last 35 years or so would be 35 million or so, or about 11.3 percent of 310 million, in the ballpark of the number provided by NAS and Pew.

The choice of the kind of number reflects the authors’ purposes. Perdue and Cotton want immigration to look large, so they point to the count of immigrants for a recent year. They want “historical norms” to be restrictive, so they want the count of immigrants now to match the count when we were a much smaller country.

Bier wants immigration to look small, so he wants to use the rate per capita per year. He wants to expose the Senators’ ploy regarding “historical norms,” so he wants to examine that rate over time.

The NAS and Pew, I suggest, want to inform us about the dimensions and effects of immigration, so they point to the proportion of us that are immigrants at a given time. That proportion is likely to be related, for example, to the probabilities of meeting an immigrant in a grocery store, hiring or being hired by an immigrant, competing with an immigrant for a job, walking into a business started by an immigrant, marrying an immigrant, and so on.

Without hesitation, I choose the numbers supplied by the NAS and Pew.