Dynamist Blog

Red Team, Blue Team

In his Newsweek column Fareed Zakaria laments the mindless team-spirit he finds in Washington politics.

"Crossfire" is now a metaphor for politics in Washington. There are two teams, each with its own politicians, think tanks, special-interest groups, media outfits and TV personalities. The requirement of this world is that you must always be reliably left or right. If you are an analyst "on the right" you must always support what the team does. If President Bush invades Iraq, you support it. If he increases the deficit, you support that. If he opposes stem-cell research, you support that, too. There's no ideological coherence or consistency to these positions. Republicans are now fervent nation-builders, but only two years ago scornfully opposed the whole concept. You must support your team. If you don't, it screws up the TV show.

The problem is much larger than television. Any policy proposed from the left is sure to meet an instant avalanche of criticism from right-wing think tanks, talk shows, political groups and, of course, politicians. This is less true of the left, but just wait. Liberal donors are forming groups of their own, hoping to mirror the right's success at this game. All of which means that honest debate, bipartisanship and, hence, governance become close to impossible.

I would put it somewhat differently. "Left" and "right" have lost much of their Cold War coherence and have been replaced not with more meaningful intellectual or cultural categories but with "Democrat" and "Republican." That suits two constituencies: 1) People seeking entertainment. 2) People seeking election. TV shows like Crossfire and all those bestsellers by partisan provocateurs (and provocateuses) serve both.

In reality, Washington's "right-wing" think tanks offer plenty of intellectual diversity (including a range of intellectual quality and integrity, sometimes within the same organization). You just won't see that diversity reflected in television bookings. There, as in party politics, the goal is predictability and message discipline. The lack of "honest debate" and "bipartisanship" isn't a bug; it's a feature. And it will remain a feature until a political crisis sends one or both parties looking for policy entrepreneurs or until media patrons decide that intellectual exploration and genuine debate are more interesting than talking points. In the meantime, the long-term debate will take place offstage.

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