First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Polarized Politics and Celebrity Candidates -- A sermon by Rev. Tom Schade

Polarized Politics and Celebrity Candidates

Sermon October 7, 2007

Tom Schade First Unitarian Church.

I am going to talk about politics today.

OK I am not going to talk about politics today; I am going to talk about how we talk about politics these days.

Let’s start here: politics is very polarized these days. The two parties used to be broad coalitions and are now becoming more ideologically unified bodies. Almost all Democrats across the country are more liberal that almost all of the Republicans and almost all Republicans are more conservative than almost all of the Democrats.

Why is this happening? We could talk about that for a long time. It’s been a long chain reaction. When African Americans migrated North and became voters, they ended up as part of the urban Democratic party. The Democrats became the champions of African Americans and allies in the civil rights struggle that brought voting to the Southern blacks. Southern whites then became Republicans. And now, New England and Northeastern Republicans are disaffiliating with the Republican Party and slowly becoming Democrats. So the parties are becoming more ideological. My point is that the polarization of politics is a historical process and not just a breakdown in manners and civility.

Despite the polarization of our politics, almost everyone agrees that the nation is in a moment of crisis. The Conservatives think that we involved in a global struggle against Islamic Radicalism, a new world war that will last for decades, and which requires extraordinary levels of governmental activity and vigilance to protect us. And yet, conservatives worry that the country as a whole does not support the struggle and want to go wobbly and throw in the towel. If you Accept the conservative’s premises, the fate of the nation is hanging in the balance.

According to the Liberals, this administration is systematically violating the Constitution, and is moving us toward an authoritarian state that bears no resemblance to the constitutional democratic republic that the United States used to be. We are becoming what we are fighting against. And so, if you accept these liberal premises, the fate of the nation is hanging in the balance.

And according to some of those who avoid being liberal or conservatives, the political life of the nation has degenerated into such a polarized partisan battleground that the extremes of both left and right dominate the scene, the center does not hold anymore, and the country is becoming ungovernable. Accepting these centrist premises, the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

So if so much is at stake, isn’t it fair to ask whether our national political discussion – the information and analysis that is being supplied to us – reflects the seriousness of the situation?

On a personal level, where you and I live, though to be interested in politics, even a little, comes down to one thing. People who are interested in politics consume information about current and political events. This is what the daily work of citizenship comes down to: reading the paper, reading magazines, listening to the radio, reading books, following websites that talk about politics. This is where it starts. And then, based on the information that they gather from information suppliers, they are then are perhaps moved into more political activity, contributing money, getting involved in campaigns and ultimately voting.

Are we getting the information we need? Are all the forms of media helping us sort out what is going on and determining what is called for at this hour of national crisis.

I don’t like it when people talk about “the media.” That is because there are lots of ways that political information is being communicated and each of them seems to have different rules and create a different response.

I divide the information providers into two general groups who engage in two different kinds of talk, or dialogue, or conversation.

First of all, I think that there is a private sphere of talk and public sphere of talk. And the difference is who the imagined audience of the information is, are they individuals? Or are they a imagine broad national audience?

What do mean by private individual audience? I read a political websites on my computer, this is a private and individual experience. I am by myself when I consume this information. I am in private. I don’t share what I am reading with others and get their opinion on what is being said while I am getting the information.

I think that talk radio is a similar kind of experience. Where do people listen to the radio? The most common place where people listen to the radio is their car. You commute, you listen to the radio. Likewise is a usually private, personal experience.

It’s my observation that political talk in this private sphere can be very partisan, and is often extreme, and loud. Conservatives call liberals appeasers, unpatriotic and appeasers. Liberals say that the administration is an authoritarian criminal gang and a personality cult around the great leader George W. Bush. When you consume this information, you don’t have to think about the fact that others might disagree with your position.. There are forms of media that are like private rooms where you can talk trash about the people who disagree with you, rather than talk with them. The big three for this kind of political talk are websites, talk radio and books. You must have noticed the huge market for sharply partisan books. You read a book by yourself. I think that cable TV is more private than broadcast TV.

I say this cautiously, and I want people to hear exactly what I am saying. This kind of political talk is pornographic. Not because it is about sex; it is not about sex. But because it designed to be consumed in private and to stimulate very strong and powerful emotions that don’t have to be balanced with other concerns.

A lot of people worry about this, all this bile and vitriol and uncompromising political talk and information going on. And many a sermon has been preached on this coarsening of our political discussion.

But I am more concerned about what is happening in the other sphere of political talk: the public sphere. I am including in what I call the public sphere, The major newspapers, including the famous OP Ed pages columnists, Time and Newsweek, the broadcast news organizations, NPR, and PBS, all of those institutions which imagine themselves as speaking to the nation as a whole, and who aspire to be objective, non-partisan and unbiased. I am alert to the expectations of this kind of talk about political events because as a minister, this is where I am supposed to be; this is the space that I am supposed to occupy, when I mount this pulpit.

In a polarizing political environment, the media in this public sphere is under a constant critique of its bias. The left thinks that it biased toward the right; the right thinks it’s biased toward the left.

So the problem for the public sphere is “How are you supposed to talk about the fate of the nation in a non-partisan, objective manner in a thoroughly polarized political environment? I think that it is an impossible task.

The solution to this problem that has been adopted by our national media has been to move out of the line of fire by focusing their political coverage on the personalities of political figures, especially the candidates for President.

For quite a while, it was a common saying that one ought to “vote for the candidate, and not the party” especially among the more middle-class and educated voters. It is the watchword of the independent voter, or to put it more succinctly, the unaffiliated voter. One of the features of this polarized political opinion is that while the number of unaffiliated voters continues to climb, the number of voters who are actually undecided about the major issues of the day is very small. Not many people haven’t come to a conclusion about the war in Iraq, for example.

In order to seem neutral and non-partisan, the big public media have separated issues from politics and candidates.

On the one hand, we get articles about “the issues” which usually imply that none of the candidates are addressing them with any seriousness. And on the other hand, we get articles and stories about the personalities of the candidates. What we don’t get is substantive articles that explore the positions that candidates take on the issues, whether they are based on a true analysis of the situation, and what the probable results of their policy would be. Much of the media simply does not have the expertise to make that analysis. In fact, they don’t seem to have the expertise to analyze the competence of the experts that they bring in to talk about more complicated matters.

In fact, the public sphere media has generally concluded that it does not much matter what a candidate says or advocates about the issues. By the time they win the Presidential election and try to get a proposal through Congress, they are not going to actually implement what they advocate during the campaign, but some compromise. So what actually matters is the character of the candidate.

So the Big media tries to tell us about the character of political candidates, and to do this they rely on the “telling anecdote.” They look for some incident or observation about a candidate that supposedly reveals his or her personality and character. John Edwards spent $400 on some haircuts. Fred Thompson wore Gucci loafers to the Iowa State Fair. Rudy Guiliani said that people who own ferrets have a mental problem, Hillary Clinton wore a blouse that exposed a little cleavage on the Senate floor, and she sometimes laughs loudly. Barack Obama doesn’t wear an American flag lapel pin, Mitt Romney transported his dog in a carrier on the roof of his car, George Bush, Sr. asked a waitress in a New Hampshire truck stop for “another splash of coffee”, Al Gore said that ‘he invented the internet.”, Ronald Reagan ate jelly beans and George H.W. Bush ate pork rinds and on and on and on and on.

There is a word for this kind of talk. It’s gossip. And gossip is the main currency of political reporting in the big mainstream media these days. Everything gets reduced to gossip, and to people’s reactions to the gossip. I recall watching one of the Democratic Debates in which the first question to John Edwards was whether the fact that he spent money on a haircut undercut his concern with poverty. It wasn’t a question about poverty, or why he thought it is a crucial issue, or what he would do about it, it was a question about what he thought other people might think about what he thought about poverty now that they know that he has money for expensive haircuts. Somehow his haircut is a telling anecdote which reveals his character. No one cares how much Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney spend on their hair; their hair doesn’t reveal their character in the eyes of the reporters with them.

The gossip becomes the basis of the analysis of the political situation. Candidates are reduced to caricatures of themselves. Late night comedians recycle joke after joke about the candidates that is based on this gossip. Like Chevy Chase endlessly pratfalling while impersonating Gerald Ford.

The problem, of course, is that while it would be considered bias to say Candidates’ A proposals on health care is better than Candidate B’s, it is not bias to endlessly repeat stories that say that candidate C is a hypocrite, or a bore, or a prima donna, or is vain, or lazy.

And once the caricature is set, it is easy to find more telling anecdotes that confirm the original story line. Look at what happened to Dan Quayle. No matter what he did or said, every time he said something poorly, or was mistaken about something, it was another telling anecdote that confirmed the caricature of Dan Quayle, a stupid Vice-President. The media is doing the same thing to George W. Bush. The media looks for incidents that confirm what they have already decided is his most important attribute.

Candidates become celebrities and then they become like contestants on a long running Reality Show that is our political process.

We are all complicit in this. We trade in the gossip and the caricatures ourselves. We love Maureen Dowd when she gossips about politicians we don’t like and turn the page when she mocks someone we do. We talk in this shorthand among ourselves and it saves the trouble of looking more deeply.

I am asking you to examine your heart and conscience, regarding your practice as a citizen. Are you giving the state of the nation, and our political process the kind of careful and thoughtful consideration it deserves? Are you just going along with the caricatures of candidates that come to you from Jay Leno and David Letterman? Are you content with bouncing along with jokes and the gossip that dominates our political life?

We come into this sanctuary each week and worship. As we worship, we step back from our lives, from what we say and what we do, and how we spend our time and money and where we place our attention. We ask ourselves, am I living my life, conducting my business in harmony with my highest ideals and the requirements of God, Truth or Ultimate Reality? It is hoped that we are called back to our best selves as we sit here.


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