Speaking in Yellow: The Crisis in Our Politics

Lately, American politics is neither blue nor red, but yellow. 

Like the "yellow journalism" that plagued the turn of the last century, this new era of Gilded Age politics has been overrun by obscene exaggerations and outright falsehoods, all whipped into national hysteria by newsrooms that long-ago swapped research method for PR wave moxie. 

Most of this yellow journalism, of course, flows from a few for-profit news outlets seeking to make money by keeping their readers in a constant frenzy.   William Randolph Hearst, allow me to introduce you to Rupert Murdoch.

As you might have noticed, however, media induced frenzy in the age of newsboys in shorts is like a codeine stupor compared to the cocaine jolt of cable news with a Facebook-Twitter chaser.  It seems quaint these days to even call the news cycle "24/7."  The last plague of yellow journalism grew from big headlines and front page stories. Today's yellow journalism thrives in second-by-second updated web and social media where sensationalism reproduces faster than bacteria in a middle school gym locker. Today, yellow stories overwhelm the actual issues before any real ink hits actual paper.

And with this kind of speed, today's yellow journalism instantly engulfs any political issue it wants. The border between yellow journalism and yellow politics is, as a result, a distinction without much of a difference.

Most of us probably cannot remember the last time we debated, let alone acted upon, a national issue devoid of yellow politics.

Taxes? Tea Party! Health care? Nazi extermination! Environment? Global conspiracy! Afghanistan?  Collusion with terrorists!  Education? War on Christmas! Economy?  Socialist takeover! Manufacturing?  Communist takeover!  Family? Homosexual takeover! Urban planning? Muslim terrorists! 

And on, and on.  There is no end to this new run of yellow politics. And as a result, we have become a nation that does nothing -- a nation that can do nothing, apparently, but keep churning through yellow stories.

Think about it:  Are any of the current debates on the issues that concern our future actually happening in terms of red vs. blue anymore?

Supposedly, FOX News is the broadcast voice of red America.  But tune in, lately, and the programming is all yellow.

Glenn Beck tells us that on the issue of healthcare, Americans should not be debating actual programs or solutions, but whether or not our government is totalitarian. He says much the same for the rest of the issues we face.  And his viewers do just that.  Yellow, yellow, and more yellow.

At last week's speaking tour event Beck billed a "rally," his viewers demonstrated what it sounds like when American's speak 100% fluent yellow.

To speak yellow, one need only replace the actual issues that face our current government (i.e., levy vs. do not levy taxes, public vs. private education, war vs. diplomacy, etc.) with hyperbolic imaginary stories. Replace red and blue with yellow.

How should we pay for Social Security? Obama is a Communist!

What should be America's foreign policy in Central Asia? Obama is a secret Muslim! 

What kind of energy policy should we craft to transition from oil to renewables? Obama blew up Deep Water Horizon to pass his radical agenda!

Do you have any evidence proving any of these fantastical conspiracies to be even remotely true? God bless Glenn Beck!

Nobody can argue with a person speaking entirely in yellow because there is nothing to argue against.  It's like arguing with a bag of marshmallows.

And yet, while FOX News, Beck, Limbaugh and most of the Newscorp-cum-Clear Channel business sector are a driving force behind the yellowing of our politics, they are not the only force.

Since running for Vice President and quitting her job as Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has cultivated the extraordinary power to turn any political issue yellow by the simple act of updating her Facebook status (a remarkable feat when you think about it).

For years, for example, Republicans and Democrats debated the best way forward on healthcare reform.  Now, Sarah Palin updates her Facebook status and -- death panels!  Suddenly, we are all speaking in yellow.

For months, FOX News discussed the merits of having new "moderate" Muslim leaders in and around the World Trade Center neighborhood in New York. Now, Sarah Palin updates her Facebook status and -- ground zero mosque! Suddenly, we are all speaking yellow.

And what is the result of this sudden onset of yellow?  For starters, the people pushing yellow are making a mountain of cash doing it.

In the time since she stepped down from her job as Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has amassed a staggering $13 million, and the money keeps flowing.  Tens of millions of dollars for typing sensationalist lies into her Facebook status line?  There are a few more steps involved (i.e., speaking fees, book advances, reality show contracts, etc.), but the engine that drives the Palin gravy train runs on high octane yellow.

If this keeps up, Sarah Palin will be the first politician in history to successfully ride the yellow wave from total obscurity to mega millionaire media mogul.  And once she hits that threshhold (say, $25 million), Palin's yellow fortune will be large enough to buy her some legitimate credentials: a Senate seat, perhaps?

How do we get out of this cycle? How do we stem the tide of yellow?

Well, the last wave of yellow journalism to sweep the country ended when the country twice voted for FDR, against the hysterical warnings on the pages of newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst.  With the wind kicked out of his yellow business model by a President willing to push populism and strong reforms, Hearst's yellow empire faded quickly.

I am not so sure the same thing would happen, today.  And yet, it sure would be great for the country if it did.

Imagine if President Obama -- elected on a groundswell of popular optimism and youthful energy for tackling real issues with real action -- imagine if he were to suddenly find his fighting voice.  Imagine if he were to draw the line and push back against the yellow tide drowning the country.

"Epic" would be too small a word.

What the President needs to do is remind us what issues are really at stake.  And he can do that by focusing debate relentlessly on the core symbolic issues we face and the practical choices. These are the stakes.  This is what's real.  This is what we must do. 

He has ended the war in Iraq, now he must bring the fight at home -- the fight against yellow politics.

We need to hear from the President more, much more, on the everyday issues that concern us.  We need to see him speaking passionately and often, away from DC, outside of the backroom negotiation tables.  He needs to become, again, a voice so big and a story so large that the yellow voices will seem puny again by comparison.  Sure, Sarah Palin will probably make more cash along the way, but so be it.  Without the President stepping up to lead national debate, yellow will continue to overrun the levies until we are all drowning.

The crisis in American politics is clear:  Either we stop speaking in yellow or America should accept its fate as a nation that can do nothing -- that will do nothing.

Either we do what is necessary to return to real issues and meaningful action in our politics or: marshmallows, as far as the eye can see.

And that is a fate we can, and should, avoid.