I’ll admit, I used to think it was funny. Back in the beginning — when a red-faced, bulging-veined Rush Limbaugh was still relatively new to the nation’s airwaves and didn’t yet have a huge following. His show seemed so foreign and outrageous, like some dark, twisted parody of Archie Bunker. Not many took him seriously back then, including most conservatives I knew. Conservatism was a different animal in the late 1980’s — a much more deliberate and thoughtful one. Intellectuals still held a place of importance in the Republican party. William F. Buckley, Jr. was a conservative icon. George Will did battle each week with Sam Donaldson on This Week With David Brinkley, more than holding his own. A pair of Bobs led the GOP in the house and senate — Michel, known for civility and bi-partisanship, and Dole, tough but relatively moderate, and more than capable of compromise. Civil discourse and meaningful debate were still alive and well in the country, as was bipartisanship. Limbaugh’s brand of overt incivility and bombast was controversial and out of place. His show had “flash in the pan” written all over it.
But it was anything but a flash in the pan. In a few short years, Limbaugh would become a dominant force in political media, even becoming a national celebrity in the wake of two best selling books and an ever-growing legion of fans. Limbaugh’s brand of political outrage found an audience — or more accurately, forged one. Limbaugh’s gift, as it turned out, was an ability to incite anger, outrage, and prejudice in people who weren’t overtly angry, outraged, or prejudiced to begin with. Limbaugh made people that way through sheer demagoguery — by directly appealing to people’s darkest fears and prejudices and demonizing all opposition.
As Limbaugh’s popularity grew, political discourse in this country began to take on the flavor of his show. It became more combative, more heated, less grounded in fact and policy and more rooted in ideology and emotion. More than once, when discussing politics with conservatives in the ’90’s, I wondered if I might get punched in the face — not because I had said or done anything rude or offensive, but merely for questioning the other’s assumptions and advocating a liberal viewpoint. At some point, I began to avoid political discussions altogether. It wasn’t fun anymore, or worth it.
Politics likewise followed suit. As Limbaugh was reaching the height of popularity, Newt Gingrich was revolutionizing modern attack dog politics. Gingrich’s approach to political warfare was much like Limbaugh’s approach to political discourse: attack everything, concede nothing, and blame and dehumanize the enemy at every turn. Gingrich, following Limbaugh’s lead, understood that effective messaging wasn’t about winning intellectual debates; rather, it was about rallying people to your side. And the best way to do that was to make them angry while giving them an enemy to hate.
By the late ’90’s, the Limbaughs and Gingriches of the world had largely convinced conservatives that mainstream media outlets had a liberal bias and could no longer be trusted. In stepped Fox News, with its farcical claims of being “fair and balanced,” and began developing programming in the Limbaugh/Gingrich model. Conservatives flocked in droves. Today, Fox is the top rated news network in America, and has been, continuously, for over fifteen consecutive years. It is also, astoundingly, the “most trusted” news network by its viewers, by a considerable margin. Today, it arguably serves as a de facto propaganda arm for the president and his administration, devoting countless hours a day to defending and mitigating Trump’s policies, failures, blunders, offenses, and possible crimes at every turn. The influence it wields on public opinion and, in turn, American political outcomes, is immense.
A big reason Fox is so powerful is that it essentially rose without competition. It exists as something of a monopoly with regard to mainstream conservative news and opinion. As such, it can steer conservative public opinion in any direction it chooses. And while those directions have morphed over time, they have from the beginning leaned heavily toward extreme right wing positions and extreme right-wing factions within the Republican party — from hawkish neoconservatives, to indignant theocons, to outraged “constitutionalists” and purported “libertarians,” to angry populists, majoritarians, and paleoconservatives. Fox has rarely embraced moderate conservativism or the moderate wing of the GOP. As such, moderate conservatism has not had an equal media platform on which to develop and advance its ideas, and has largely been supplanted. What was once the extreme right has become the mainstream. What was once the unthinkable (Breitbart, etc.) has become the fringe. The contrast between current GOP majority leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and the kindlier Bobs of yesteryear — Michel and Dole — could hardly be starker, to say nothing of the contrast between Donald Trump and George H. W. Bush.
The unrivaled emergence of Fox News proved to be a pivotal moment in America — not only in media, but in American politics. A decade after Fox premiered, the moderate wing of the Republican party would find itself on life support. Less than a decade after that, it would be virtually extinct. And in its wake rose what we have now: a hapless, narcissistic buffoon as a president — a cartoon character who, a mere decade or two earlier, would have been laughed off the stage by the very people who voted him into office. Moreover, a Congress packed with conservative ideologues so drunk with power that it has been unwilling to look meaningfully into the president’s conflicts of interest, Constitutional abuses, and near-certain corruption. A president and a Congress, both, that rode to power on the fears and prejudices that had been kindled and stoked by the right wing media for the past thirty years.
And I can’t help but wonder if things might have been different — if, say, some credible news organization at the time recognized the market demand for more conservative news programming, and responded to it by offering a meaningful alternative to Fox. An alternative that didn’t try to out-outrage Fox, but instead earned a reputation as an objectively credible news organization adhering to principles of journalistic integrity, featuring guests and pundits that didn’t cater to people’s worst fears and prejudices, but advanced legitimate conservative viewpoints grounded in and supported by science, data, and logic. Pundits who were willing to discuss climate change as a real phenomenon, and to engage in meaningful discourse about healthcare reform, gun control, immigration, and inequality without resort to false and misleading stories, angry, absolutist denials, and ad hominem attacks against all things “liberal.” Might a significant percentage of educated and reasonable-minded conservatives have tuned in? Might such have tempered and served as a check on Fox’s wild accusations and extreme rhetoric? Might it have at least positioned Fox differently — as what we now refer to as the “alternative right,” rather than as the mainstream conservative voice?
I don’t think it is a stretch to say that perhaps the biggest problem this nation faces is the seemingly impenetrable information and opinion divide that exists as the result of the rise of an extremist right wing media over the past thirty years. And I recognize that, at this point, it’s going to be an extremely difficult fix. But a key step, I think, might be to give moderate conservatism a viable media voice and presence, which, in fairness to moderate conservatives, it may not have truly had since the 1960’s. It’s an idea, anyway, and one that I’ve been carrying around long enough to feel the need to unload. It’s also one I’d love to see spark a little conversation. So, what do you think?
As always, thanks for reading, and my best to all.