Alumnus John Harris ’85 is always happy to revisit the college that still provides him with a foundation for his life. The purpose of his most recent visit was to speak at last Friday’s convocation about “a type of politics that encourages attacks and promotes people, behavior, and ideas that would normally be on the fringe,” or what he calls, “freak show” politics.
It was at Carleton that the founder and editor of the popular website politico.com “stumbled into journalism” after writing for a friend at the Carletonian, explained Jane Sturges ’10 in her introduction. The values he learned at Carleton not only informed his journalism when he went to work at the Washington Post two days after graduating but also provided him with a moral compass that he still uses today.
This is a compass, Harris said, that seems to be increasingly obsolete in the modern media world.
According to Harris, the problem with freak show politics and the media is not that it is polarizing; in fact, the U.S. has been far more polarized in the past. Instead, the problem is that the freak show “offers incentives for a type of argument that attacks motives,” said Harris.
By attacking motives, the freak show encourages attacks not just on policies but on people as well, which then encourages conspiracy theories and the belief that everyone who disagrees with you is fundamentally corrupt. Additionally, the freak show is different from typical polarization because “polarization is being consciously cultivated and used as a marketing tool by political operatives,” said Harris.
As an example of the way the freak show works, Harris mentioned Rep. Joe Wilson, who heckled president Obama during a speech on health care. Although Mr. Wilson apologized profusely for his outburst, his two words gained him nation-wide fame and recognition. He was soon raking in donations and had gone from “the epitome of an obscure backbencher” to a fundraising giant in the GOP. This popularity and the money that came with it are the rewards of freak show politics.
Harris admitted to concerned students that the driving force of the freak show, which is the removal of a filter on the public news due to the Internet, is what has made his politico.com project so successful. As media viewers become increasingly focused in their tastes, his website must be focused on a certain type of political process to appeal to its narrow audience of beltway insiders and news junkies.
However, he distanced politico.com from the freak show by stating that although it was part of the new web based media, it has one “critical difference.” This difference is standards. Unlike a normal blog, politico.com is edited, and the editors are held responsible for the website’s contents.
Furthermore, both sides of the political spectrum are becoming increasingly drawn to the freak show. Where previously Harris’ hate mail was almost exclusively from right wingers, he now regularly receives hate mail from both liberals and conservatives accusing him of being biased towards certain groups.
Harris believes Obama is in a great position to “slay the freak show dragon” and restore a degree of civility to American discourse. Obama is “supremely rational,” made campaign promises to decrease the polarization associated with the freak show, and has a vested personal interest in fighting it. With his unusual background, he is already “the other,” and it is not difficult for the freak show to stir up extreme anger against him, said Harris.
However, Harris also believes that political realities constrain Obama from acting against the freak show. For one thing, he ran on a campaign to bring sweeping changes to Washington, which will by necessity polarize the nation. What’s more, he is also surrounded by political operatives who are “practitioners of an old style of politics” where the most comfortable place to be is on the attack, an attitude that feeds the freak show.
In order to fight the freak show, Harris believes that everyone involved must do his or her part. Politicians must remember that politics is ultimately “the search for remedy,” and without substantive proposals on policy, they only feed political polarization by railing against their opponents and not offering solutions. Journalists, on the other hand, must defend fairness and neutrality. These are the values of the old establishment journalism that Harris was so fond of and that has crumbled in an age of free information and freak show attack politics.