Segment from Stuck

Listener Calls

Brian, Ed, and Peter take a couple calls from listeners.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

**Note: this transcript come from the original broadcast of the show. There may be small differences from the stories you hear.**

ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of the systems grinding to a halt. It’s the story of gridlock in America.

PETER: And as we do most weeks, we’ve been taking your questions online via email, Facebook, and This first question comes to us from just outside the epicenter of American gridlock in Arlington, Virginia. Elizabeth, welcome to the show.

ELIZABETH: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

PETER: Well, great to have you here. So what’s on your mind?

ELIZABETH: I was wondering what role media has played in political gridlock throughout the years?

PETER: Whoa.

ELIZABETH: Specifically, Professor Balogh, how has first radio and then C-SPAN effected congressional gridlock? Professor Ayers, how did newspaper coverage affect political gridlock leading up to the Civil War? And Professor Onuf, how did media coverage affect the whole Federalist and entire Federalist gridlock?

BRIAN: That’s such a terrific question. So I’ll take radio first. The major way that radio contributed to gridlock in the 1920s and the 1930s is for the first time politicians could not say different things in different places without being called for it.

ED: No, the telegraph did that, man.

BRIAN: Oh, Ed. Telegraph, that was so slow. Where did that telegraph go to?

ED: It went to every newspaper and every town of America. Brian, I’m sorry, I feel strongly about this.

BRIAN: Elizabeth, Ed is absolutely right as he always is. What Ed is leaving out is that news from the telegraph was then distributed to highly partisan newspapers that broke up that news and picked and chose what they wanted.

ED: Oh, OK. All right.

BRIAN: So by the time it came out of that partisan sausage making machine, it looked very different in every little place they went. As soon as those radio broadcasters link up national networks, people in the Deep South and people in New England are listening to the words of politicians in an unmediated fashion. And so politicians need to say the same thing. And why is that contribute to gridlock? Because they can’t bend, they can’t twist, they can’t adjust their message for the inevitably different sets of constituencies that contribute to their parties.

PETER: Well, what Elizabeth really wanted to know was about the 18th Century. That’s where her question ended up, OK? So I want to throw a couple things out, guys.

First of all, you can’t have the kind of gridlock we have now unless you have a plugged in and connected electorate. And even before you have the telegraph, you have, in the period of the revolution and the Constitution, you’ve got the mobilization of an electorate and you have the illusion of simultaneity. By that I mean people all over the country are parading. They’re reading about each other’s celebrations. You’re conjuring up a notion of “the people” for the first time.

The second point I want to make is that you can’t mobilize that public opinion. You can’t get anything to happened until you have combat and conflict. In other words, you’ve got to have two sides in order to gen up interest.

And so to get people’s attention, there’s got to be real difference. So I’d say gridlock is an endemic risk in the democratic politics of public opinion, where to get people interested you got to disagree with somebody else. Those disagreements can harden into what we call gridlock.

ED: I disagree, Peter.

PETER: [LAUGHS] There you go. You’re on the other side.

ED: The fact is in terms of sheer scale and velocity and regularity and penetration into people’s lives, it really is the 19th Century and the newspapers, Elizabeth. Ask about–

PETER: I don’t argue with that, Ed.

ED: Well, but you’re going to have to because that’s where conflict comes from. I mean, but we might want to think about what’s the difference? I mean, the fact that by the era of the civil war that every little town in America would have not one, but two newspapers because that sort of fractal of conflict has to be taken right down to the very level of every hamlet.

And so if you’ve got a Wig paper, you need a Democrat paper. If you’ve got a Republican paper, you need a Democrat paper. And if you look at how many towns and counties are really closely contested, it’s a remarkable range. So you kind of have gridlock down at the local level. So I think what’s amazing to me is how that kind of thing they discover in the era of the revolution is then sort of on steroids in the 19th Century.

PETER: Yeah. No, I think that’s right.

ELIZABETH: I’m in communications on the Hill. So it’s just really interesting to hear about how the media has affected political gridlock over the last couple–

ED: Well, what’s your view? You’d know more about this than we do, Elizabeth. What’s the story?

ELIZABETH: Oh, It’s always interesting to me to see how we speak to reporters who are conservative differently than we speak to reporters who are liberal. And we have to be very cognizant of what our members are saying and doing at all times, what every little tweet, every little Facebook post, what we say in that. And because of that it sometimes makes it harder to get things done because there is no such thing as someone convincing someone else of their argument because that’s just called flip flopping.

ED: Elizabeth, let me try a thesis on you. I would argue that the great period in the 20th Century of bipartisan consensus was the product of two things. One was the Cold War. So we were scared as hell of those commies and we had a tendency to group together.

But the other thing was that there were only three TV channels at the very time that more and more people were getting their news from television. And the fact that every politician had to craft his or her message in order to get on those three channels and the fact that those three channels had to have a market share of 25%, 20%, 35% otherwise they’d be out of business, steered everything towards the middle to a certain degree, to a certain amount of consensus. With the emergence of cable television, with the ability to just thrive with 15% to 17% of the audience rather than 30% or 35%, there was the opportunity for media outlets to make a name for themselves by being combative, quite the opposite of what the three channels were. And that has contributed to the situation of gridlock today, not the only factor, but has contributed.

PETER: Well, thanks for calling. And keep calling in on a regular basis.

BRIAN: Don’t be gridlocked.

ELIZABETH: I will do that.

PETER: All right.

ELIZABETH: Thanks, bye bye.

PETER: Our next gridlock question came to us via voice mail. It’s from listener, Janet, in Ohio.

JANET: Hi, I was wondering if there had been a time when political gridlock actually caused a military crisis in American history. Today’s situation with the sequester seems frustrating and has certainly effected some individuals badly. But, overall, I have a sense that it’s not caused any major problems. So I was just wondering if there was a time when gridlock had actually done that, had caused severe consequences? Thanks a lot. Love the show. Bye.

PETER: So, guys, Janet is not going to be building a fall out shelter. She doesn’t thinks there’s going to be war. But, Ed, is there an answer to this question?

ED: Now, let’s just see. What could have happened–

PETER: Yeah. Gridlock, right.

ED: –in the middle of American– yeah, the Civil War kind of comes to mind in this regards. So let’s just go and talk about it a little bit. Ironically, if you do think about it a little bit, you realize that gridlock in the sense that Janet’s referring to, it did not bring on the Civil War.

It’s not that there were two equally balanced parties going head to head and refusing to budge. Instead, the American political system broke apart. The Democrats divided into two parties and then the Republicans sort of walked into the vacuum.

The gridlock came about where the Republicans came from in the first place, which was that they denied the legitimacy of decisions from the Supreme Court, especially the Dredd Scott case which said that there were no rights of black people that whites were bound to respect. And, therefore, the Supreme Court could not stop the expansion of slavery across the continent. Abraham Lincoln built his entire party saying we reject the entire premise of that.

BRIAN: Well, Ed, I really like the way you creatively think about the parties to gridlock. So I’m going to see your creative spirit and raise you one.

ED: All right.

BRIAN: Because when we get to the Cold War period, after World War II, I’m going to argue that gridlock, perhaps, avoided a horrible military crisis. Who were the parties that were gridlocked? They were the United States and the Soviet Union.

In fact, the stated policy of the United States, which was mirrored in the Soviet Union, was mutually assured destruction. That meant that both sides needed to be convinced that if they were to launch a nuclear strike, they would be obliterated by the other side, that destruction of both sides would be assured. Now, I can’t think of anything more gridlocked than that.

PETER: Now, I think that evokes to me, when Brian talks about the Cold War and geopolitical rivalries, East versus West, that was what might have happened in the early United States if they hadn’t faced up to the threat of war. And I think it’s the credibility of a threat of war that leads the statesman from different states and sections to come to terms because the alternative is so horrific.

ED: So that’s kind of complex. It does stretch across all three centuries. It sounds like in the 20th Century, gridlock actually prevented war. It sounds like in the 18th Century, Peter, that it was the very threat of war that broke gridlock. And in the 19th Century it was an unusual kind of gridlock that sort of generated war in the first place. So I think Janet’s question is great in helping us think about the relationship. But, as so often on BackStory, the relationship is seldom simple.