Rupert Cornwell: Cable news blocks the middle of the road

Out of America: Politics is now 24/7 entertainment, a better spectator sport than ever
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The mid-term campaign, mercifully, is almost over, and the outcome can safely be declared. Republicans will score a big victory at the polls; the only remaining doubt is whether it will be big enough to secure a majority in the Senate as well as the House of Representatives.

But there's another big winner, too: the in-your-face, take-no-prisoners universe of cable television and the internet, led – need one say it? – by Fox News. And it hasn't been a pretty spectacle. Each US election campaign seems more protracted, more bitter and more partisan than the one before. And the trend now threatens to make a creaking political system all but unworkable.

Now I'm not so naive as to believe there once existed a golden age of political civility, when gentlemen from opposing parties (female pols didn't exist in that vanished Utopia) nodded wisely to each other, and reason prevailed.

Politics has always been a rough old trade. Moreover, increased partisanship has its advantages. Strong feelings about politics mean a strong interest in elections. And a stronger interest means greater participation. After years of decline, turnouts at the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections were the highest in half a century. I'd bet the turnout on Tuesday will beat the recent US mid-term average of around 40 per cent.

But now for the bad news. Yes, cable TV, the internet and talk radio have turned politics into 24/7 entertainment, a better spectator sport than ever. In terms, however, of helping parties fulfil their most important function in a democracy – that of mediating agreement between competing groups – they have been a disaster.

They have contributed to the puerility of the campaign: the trading of insults, the search for "gotcha" moments, the substitution of meaningless slogans for policy. Above all, they are strengthening the twin cancers that make US politics ever more dysfunctional: impatience and polarisation.

A smashing victory for Republicans this week would mean that for three times in four years American voters have turned on their rulers. In 2006 and 2008 Republicans were punished; now the Democratic Congress is on the chopping block. If President Obama were on the ballot on Tuesday, he'd probably be kicked out too. Americans have never been celebrated for patience; the 24/7 craving for novelty of the electronic media only compounds that failing.

Meanwhile polarisation is slowly eating away the vital centre of US politics. The withering of the centre has many causes – not least the growing importance of moral issues, and the pernicious effects of re-districting. The redrawing of districts is now a computer-driven science at the disposal of the party in charge of a state legislature, to make its congressional seats in that state safer and more numerous.

Even in a volatile year like 2010, only a quarter or so of the 435 House seats are "in play". The greatest threat, therefore, to an incumbent now is often a more radical challenger from his or her own party in the primary – which is exactly what happened in the Tea Party victories over candidates backed by the Republican establishment. A similar, if less spectacular, process is at work on the Democratic side too.

By catering to the activist "base" incumbents have thus moved steadily away from the centre, to the point that there is virtually no overlap between the two parties. Thus the decline of the aisle-crossing dealmakers who are vital for getting things done in a system with so many built-in checks and balances.

Dealmaking, alas, involves compromise and the ability to see merit in another's point of view. For slugfest-loving cable TV and blogger-land, compromise is akin to treason. All you find in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos, runs the old Texas saying about politics. Never has it been truer than today. Indeed, the collapse of the centre has its metaphor on cable news itself. CNN, the least opinionated of the three main cable news channels, once ruled the roost. It has long since been overtaken by the stridently conservative Fox News. Now CNN is falling behind stridently liberal MSNBC as well. On TV as in politics, centrism doesn't pay.

The newspapers that offer a degree of detachment and impartial analysis are in decline as well. Instead, today's fragmented media universe offers outlets to suit every political taste. So voters are able to pick and choose the one that tells them what they want to hear, tuning out competing points of view.

But here we come to the great disconnect. Poll after poll shows that, despite the media sound and fury, Americans are not becoming more extreme in their views. Independents (ie moderates) are a more important voting bloc than ever. My own experience on a trip out West last week offers proof of another kind. Time and again, I was asked about British politics. How was it that two competing parties could agree on a programme to reduce the deficit? Why, people wondered, was such a thing inconceivable here? Dutifully, I pointed out the differences between Britain's parliamentary government and the presidential system of the US. Sagely, I warned that the Lib-Con coalition may yet end in tears. And then it occurred to me. We don't have Fox News.

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