Vice probes roots of toxic politics in 'A House Divided'

Did fake news help elect Donald Trump?
Did fake news help elect Donald Trump?

Donald Trump plays a relatively small part in "A House Divided" -- his presence in the Vice Special Report was largely tacked on post-election -- but the HBO documentary does a nice job encapsulating the toxic political environment that festered throughout the Obama administration, creating the conditions for his victory.

Written and directed by Vice founder Shane Smith, the 70-minute production is a bit conventional, or un-Vice-like, in its approach to the subject, relying on interviews with a who's who of top newsmakers like President Obama and former House Speaker John Boehner. But Smith has nevertheless provided a forum to chew over the roots and depth of Washington's current dysfunction, beginning with the mix of high hopes and hysteria that greeted Obama's inauguration.

The Republicans featured, not surprisingly, lay a fair amount of blame on Obama, suggesting that he antagonized them by pushing through the Affordable Care Act, in particular, early in his administration.

Democrats, by contrast, point to a stated GOP strategy of obstructionism, attempting to impede all of Obama's initiatives in order to damage him politically, and feeding a sense of governmental indifference that stoked the run of an outsider like Trump.

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Many of the arguments are self-serving, by people who sound more reasonable with the benefit of hindsight. Boehner, for one, lets out a faux shriek about the prospect of people getting their news from talk radio, saying, "That would scare the hell out of everybody."

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"Nobody's listening. Nobody's learning," lamented Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz, who spoke in near-apocalyptic terms, concluding, "At some point, the economy just stops functioning."

Still, some clear themes emerge in the crosstalk, including Obama and Boehner's agreement that fragmentation of media has contributed to the climate of polarization, pushing and pulling voters, and thus their representatives, to the right and left. And while there's nothing particularly new about that argument, Smith does a creditable job of tracing it through the Tea Party and talk of Obamacare "death panels" to the bitter nature of the 2016 campaign.

As Vice President Joe Biden notes, there were always disagreements over policy. But when the discourse shifted to questioning motives, character and patriotism, compromise became nearly impossible.

Boehner, who has looked and sounded notably relaxed and refreshed since giving up the Speaker's gavel, expresses bemusement over having been labeled the "establishment" by the ascendant elements within the GOP. While still proud of his conservative credentials, he draws a distinction between his approach to governing and those of his critics, who simply want to "burn things down."

PBS has its own plans for a four-hour documentary about the current state of U.S. politics in January, so this is a discussion that won't end here. Still, "A House Divided" is as good a place as any to start the dialogue over whether it's still feasible to repair democracy's cracked foundation.

"A House Divided" airs December 9 at 10 p.m. on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Time Warner.

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