By Thom Senzee
Extreme political polarity is killing the American mainstream. As 2018 begins, America’s center is a disturbingly barren space.
It wasn’t always this way. Not long ago, we found common ground and made compromise in the middle of the American road. Now practically a slur, “mainstream” was once a synonym for a wide median that bridged the political left to its right.
America’s mainstream was a unifying concord of basic agreements built along a boulevard of shared values and dreams. At the very center of mainstream, American values were modesty and collective self-respect for our power to disagree while moving forward, together as a people and as a nation.
But if we’ve come to a place where mainstream is a purely pejorative word, well then we’ve invalidated that concord. If in today’s America calling someone or some group “mainstream” is universally understood as an insult, at best we’ve declared to the world that Americans can no longer even agree with one another about what is America.
If being in the mainstream of American thought, American politics, or even American media is something to be ashamed of, well then folks, we’ve become a country that is by definition ashamed of itself.
In 1976, just four days before the USA’s bicentennial commemorating our first 200 years as a republic, an article appeared in Commentary magazine about how our common values were respected and admired on foreign shores. Wrote Nathan Glazer on July 1 of that year:
“In England, France, Germany, Japan, or India, only the Right speaks of national values and insists that they be made significant in the shaping of policy. In America, however, liberals as well as conservatives are given to asserting that national values should affect foreign policy.”
During his career as a sociologist, author, and mainstream intellect, Glazer was accused of being everything from a Marxist—he was one in his youth—to one of America’s earliest neoconservatives (which indeed, he eventually became). Regardless, Glazer assures us in the summer of ‘76 that his glowing and sometimes paradoxical words about American exceptionalism are not prompted by an impulse to be seen as “…celebrating our bicentennial and… some special Sunday topic, some ceremonial theme.”
Essentially writing about the compelling sway, overseas, of mainstream American political thought in matters of foreign policy matters, he notes how our values can transcend race and ethnicity:
“The United States is thus unique in being able to claim that in speaking of its own national values it does not separate itself from other nations, other races, other peoples. But there is another important reason we can make this claim, and that is that the United States is in fact composed of people drawn from every place and every race. We call our country the ‘United States,’ a name which has no ethnic content at all; and we call ourselves “Americans,” a term with so little ethnic specificity that it can refer to any of the peoples of the New World.”
Fast forward 30 years and we find a concerted effort by the so-called Alt-Right and its duplicitous emissaries who straddle the line between racism and ultra-right orthodoxy, such as there is orthodoxy in 2018. The extremists’ effort features frequent deployment of the word, “mainstream” as a nominally covert allusion to anyone who opposes a white-nationalist agenda.
Right-wing pundits have been so proud of their campaign to rebrand mainline news outlets as the “lamestream media” that in 2010, a blogger at Red State published a lamentation about how many times Fox News had allegedly misattributed the term’s origins.
It used to be that when a historically divisive position turned the corner in the media and became more acceptable in mainstream America, its middling naturally unified the lexicon of debate around it—whatever the issue. For instance, the movement to win basic rights for people of gender and sexual minorities was once slammed as a “homosexual agenda.”
Then, as more Americans understood the legitimacy of a movement based in the pursuit of happiness, equality and basic freedoms like marrying the person you love, common parlance coalesced. The so-called homosexual agenda became the “gay rights movement.” Later, mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ family members, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow congregants in faith communities turned the conversation to one simply about LGBTQ equality.
Now, however, winning mainstream approval does little to convene agreement about how Americans refer to formerly controversial issues. Take the Affordable Care Act, which has been above 50 percent favorability for more than a year. Obamacare’s mainstream approval notwithstanding, we journalists have been admonished by the editors of our writing bible, the Associated Press Style Book, to handle our ever-growing legions of partisan readers with linguistic care.
“The AP also advised that ‘Affordable Care Act,’ should be used sparingly,” wrote Merrill Perlman in the Columbia Journalism Review back in 2015 about that year’s changes to AP Style. “Polling indicates that not all Americans know the law by its formal name. Instead, AP says, ‘Use President Barack Obama’s health care law or the health care law on first reference. “Obamacare” in quotation marks is acceptable on second reference.’”
Perlman’s next paragraph is even more illustrative of just how little impact acceptance within the American mainstream carries in today’s hyper-polarized political environment:
“But putting ‘Obamacare’ into what amount to scare quotes makes its usage seem snarky,” she continues. “The coinage, which began as a derogatory term for the law, has entered mainstream usage. Fueling the flames by highlighting the controversy of the name, even unintentionally, seems ill-advised.”
For the largest part of the previous century—the American Century—we agreed to be a cohesive, United States of America. That American century is over. If we want a new one we must find a way back to the middle.
Happening largely within the news media, the erosion of our political middle ground is happening both by design and by default. Structural changes in the news business and the advent of Internet play a part. But the erosion of America’s mainstream is also the result of intentional, strategic attacks on mainstream journalism. Current attacks on the mainstream press by the president of the United States were preceded by years of strategic name-calling by right-wing talk radio personalities.
Compared to contemporary slams, “lamestream media” seems almost quaint now. The term merely intimates connotations such as irrelevance, inaccuracy, and dishonesty. The all-out, epithets, “fake news” and worse, “enemy of the people,” spearheaded by the President of the United States and echoed ad nauseum by his supporters are far more potent.
But never underestimate the destructive power of a simple alliterative device. So effective as a dismantler of confidence in American journalism has been “lamestream media,” that seeing the abbreviation, “MSM” (for mainstream media) in tweets, evokes at least a subconscious irk even in the minds of those of us who make our livings in the media who know how rigorously most journalists actually work to report the news fairly and accurately.
The decline of the mainstream as a brand, if you will, began as an economic shift that disadvantaged the middle class. But it was accelerated by an intramural media brawl. In the late 1980s and ‘90s, the mainstream media too willingly ceded AM radio to the worst talking heads of the furthest-right fringes.
Maybe we assumed, to our own detriment and to that of the nation, that the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, would stay put and just talk at themselves. Admittedly, that was pretty lame.
Ironically, with the looming purchase of Tribune Broadcasting and its host of local TV stations, including Los Angeles’ storied KTLA, Denver’s KWGN, and New Orleans’ WGNO, by right-wing media company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, the mainstream media is fast becoming comprised of owners of the same stripe as those who coined the term “lamestream media” in the first place.
Maybe the right will stop saying “lamestream media” once they’ve taken over. If they do, it could be an opening to re-establish regard for our country’s mainstream. But then, of course, the mainstream will have moved immeasurably—I say dangerously—rightward. No matter, democratically governed people have to meet in the middle eventually, wherever the middle may be.
Thom Senzee is founder and moderator of the “LGBTs in the News” live-discussion panel series, and an award-winning Southern California journalist.