The disservice of our national news media is far worse than just ‘bias.’
Dear cable-news bookers, producers, and executives (as well as other interested parties),
If you haven’t noticed, things aren’t going great in our politics. I’ll skip the usual handwringing summary, since (if you care at all about the country or follow current events even modestly) the basic outlines of our predicament should already be apparent. Polarization, hyper-partisanship, tribalism, identity politics, nationalism, socialism, secessionism: Pick your poison.
Indeed these were problems before last week, when we saw a massive mob, egged on by the president, storm the Capitol. The vanguard of that mob—or at least a well-prepared portion of it—was reportedly determined to take legislators as prisoners and/or kill them, and some of them wanted to hang the vice president for not committing an unconstitutional act on behalf of the president. Outside the Capitol, men beat a police officer with American flag poles, attempted to murder other cops, and in fact killed one. Not to be overlooked, many prominent conservative activists and media figures either actively helped organize the “Save America” rally, or promoted it.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
Friends, we have a very large trout in our milk, and that’s where you come in.
As I have argued at book length (now out in paperback!), most of the big problems facing us require large generational efforts. Teaching civics and encouraging basic patriotism can’t be done overnight. Another religious Great Awakening could help, but I have no idea how one gets that started.
But I do have a modest suggestion for a relatively small and utterly doable thing that might help. Bear with me.
Down with popular fronts.
For a great many reasons, both parties have a popular-front problem. Historically, a popular front is a broad coalition of disparate groups on the left who agree to overlook their various ideological and political differences for the sake of unity against a common foe. Some popular fronts were justified, and some were disastrous. For instance, the old Jacobin rallying cry, “No Enemies to the Left,” was a standard mantra among 20th century popular-front movements. (The fuller version: pas d’ennemis à gauche, pas d’amis à droit; “No enemies to the left, no friends to the right.”) Alexander Kerensky followed this rule, all but paving the way for the Bolsheviks to come to power. In America, popular frontism nearly led to disaster, but some good liberals at Americans for Democratic Action and in the Democratic party realized that finding common cause with communists loyal to Moscow was a recipe for calamity.
Whether warranted or not, all popular-front movements share the same flaw: They demand that individuals and institutions be loyal to a single political agenda as well as deferential to ideas they do not actually hold.
Can anybody honestly dispute that this describes much of what’s going on today?
For most of the Democratic primaries, the competition was almost entirely over who could prove they were the most woke, the most committed to the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, the most determined to issue illegal executive orders to implement the base’s agenda. One sure way to get booed was to raise the possibility that someone was wrong or that their ideas wouldn’t work or be too expensive. It wasn’t until it dawned on actual voters that this popular-front approach was likely to get Donald Trump reelected that Joe Biden finally caught fire.
Republicans used to reject popular frontism as a matter of principle (more about that in a moment). But that principle started to melt away once Donald Trump got the nomination. Nearly all that remained disappeared down the drain after he got elected. For the last four years, at the national level, on TV, talk radio, and in Congress, unity was the highest value—specifically, unity around Donald Trump. It got to the point that support for the man and all his foibles—not any idea, principle, or political program—became for many the single litmus test for who is a conservative. Spoiler: That’s not conservatism.
Simultaneously, the national liberal media mirrored this dynamic. Mirrors reflect images in reverse after all, and liberal media was as uniformly anti-Trump as conservative media was pro-Trump. Like two mimes pretending to be one person looking at his reflection, they presented parallel universes in real time.
The problem is that neither image reflected reality. On Fox News, where I am a contributor (though you might not know it from watching it, and who knows how even this “news”letter will be received), serious objections to Trump were reserved for liberals and Democrats. Yes, of course there have been exceptions to this rule (most notably Fox News Sunday and Special Report), but so few that they help to prove it. Many conservatives, including many who generally supported Trump, objected to his tweeting, his rudeness, and his indiscipline, just to name a few. But you wouldn’t know it from watching Fox & Friends or Fox at prime time. Such objections were reserved for liberals and Democrats—if they were aired at all, accurately or otherwise. For a normal person, the rational takeaway from such programming is that to be a conservative is to be someone who doesn’t object to Trump or Trumpism in any of the particulars. That’s simply not the truth.
Want to know why so many millions of decent Americans believe the election was stolen? Because that’s what they were told—not just by Donald Trump, but by those who echo his statements uncritically. The news side of Fox honorably didn’t peddle those lies, but Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, and countless guests of both the news and opinion side did, including, heartbreakingly, Bill Bennett.* Meanwhile these lies were reported as “news” by OANN, Newsmax, and other execrable fake news outlets. Politicians like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley know that the audiences that believe this stuff want to hear it, so they went on TV and repeated it. It’s then covered as legitimate news—and in a way it is—and the feedback loop turns into a cyclotron of bullshit.
More broadly, in an age of intense negative partisanship, telling conservatives they’re not part of the team if they disagree with Trump or think Trump critics have a point is a great way to intensify tribalism among conservatives—and liberals. If a liberal tunes in and hears all the conservatives parroting Trump about the election being stolen or how there’s no wisdom or legitimacy to Trump’s impeachments, or how Trump’s rhetoric is just fine and the only people objecting are Juan Williams or Donna Brazile, it is entirely reasonable for them to conclude that conservatism is the cult of personality they were already inclined to think it is. This view, of course, is then reinforced by liberal media, which invites a wide diversity of guests onto both their news and opinion programs who all agree on the same premise.
At least the popular frontism of liberal media is often about actual issues and not just Donald Trump hatred, but it’s no less pernicious. There are definitely socialists in the Democratic party. There are definitely people who believe in all manner of extreme or mockable ideas, from defunding the police, to eliminating cow farts, to the core thesis of the 1619 Project. But you know what? There are lots who don’t. But good luck discovering that by watching vast swaths of MSNBC. If you’re a conservative watching or reading most of the national liberal media, you’d be right to conclude that the Democrats are pretty close to the radical left-wing monolith the conservative media depicts them as.
Decent and reasonable liberals—and there are many of them—don’t appreciate the damage their popular frontism does to their own cause. Forget the merits of why it was wrong for The Atlantic to fire Kevin Williamson, or for the New York Times to cave to its own staff over the Tom Cotton op-ed—the message non-liberals take from such spectacles is: Wow, I’ll never be welcome in that world.
One of the reasons we launched The Dispatch in the first place was to cut through this co-dependent dysfunction. Each side identifies the worst version of the other side and holds it up as a Medusa’s head, claiming that it represents the whole of the other side. Team A unfairly caricatures Team B. Team B says, “Look at how unfair they are!” and then unfairly caricatures Team A, using the initial caricature as proof of their unfairness. And back and forth it goes. It’s like Baptists and Bootleggers, each sustaining the other until both audiences believe the other audience is exactly like the people they see on TV.
Now, I make no apologies for caring more about the health of conservatism. I’ve dedicated my professional life to conservatism and I sincerely believe that America desperately needs a healthy conservative movement. But a healthy conservatism depends on a healthy liberalism. The more extreme the left gets, the more justified the right will feel in responding with extremism, and vice versa.
Serious conservatives used to understand this. As I’ve written many times, the conservative movement didn’t have its successes because it followed a popular-front strategy. Rather, conservatives debated (and sometimes fought) among themselves. Read Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. It’s as much about conservatives warring among themselves as it is about conservatives fighting the left, maybe even more so. Social conservatives versus libertarians, neocons versus paleocons, traditionalists versus capitalists, the devout versus the secular: These debates are what made conservatism a viable movement from the 1940s to, well, pick your own end date.
William F. Buckley’s Firing Line and National Review hosted intense intra-conservative debates. One of the most important events in the history of conservatism was when, in 1978, William F. Buckley debated Ronald Reagan over ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty.
I should say those kinds of debates still go on now. National Review ran three competing good-faith essays over whether conservatives should vote for Trump in 2020 (Andrew McCarthy: Yes; Ramesh Ponnuru: No; Charlie Cooke: Maybe). Think tanks, which get so much scorn from the new national populists whipping up grievance porn against “the establishment,” remain a home for this kind of debate and good faith disagreement. At AEI, where I am proud to work, we have all manner of internal disagreements about policy, Trump, economics etc. No one calls anyone a cuck or a traitor.
But you know where serious debates don’t take place? On cable news, talk radio, or more importantly, in Congress where political disagreements are supposed to be hotly debated. The Parliament of Pundits that Congress has become is the consequence of many things, but one of them is that primaries are now won by courting TV audiences addicted to popular-front orthodoxy and tribalism.
Here’s one life hack …
So here is my modest proposal to the people who put people on TV: Don’t be afraid to have conservatives disagree with conservatives and liberals disagree with liberals. First of all, such debates are far more interesting than 99 percent of left-right debates, because the combatants can’t proceed far off the starting line without getting mired in first principles.
By all means, keep it civil, but don’t worry about confusing the audience, because the audience needs to be confused. When we are confused, we struggle to dispel the fog. We listen to arguments. We weigh facts. We consider the track record of those asking us to trust their judgment. We make decisions based upon persuasion. In other words, we engage in the stuff of this thing called “citizenship.”
When we get fed only what we want to hear, it becomes a contest for who can sell the purest junk. Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, noted as much when he predicted the tragic end of the French Revolution. The popular-front mentality fosters a competition to be the purest and most popular among the most passionate, rather than the most persuasive. Delegates to the French National Assembly, Burke observed, became “bidders at an auction of popularity.” The dynamic inexorably led to a climate where “if any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular.”
Democracy is supposed to be about disagreements, not agreements. Forced unity, outside of war or some other national emergency, is antithetical to democracy and poisonous to civility. It’s become a cliché to say we live in two Americas. If that’s true, the people running the media of each nation have an obligation to do more than just live off demonization of the other nation.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So the dogs now think the Fair Jessica will never come back and I am their only caretaker (not counting Aunt Kirsten who takes them on wonderful midday adventures during the week). It makes life around the house a bit stressful because when they’re not amped up they follow me around a little bit like Kathy Bates following James Caan in Misery. “Where are you going?” “Why do you need to go upstairs?” “We better go with you just in case.” And of course, “Why did you stop the scritching?” And every time I come back to the house, even after the briefest departure, I get the full welcoming committee treatment. As I think I mentioned last week, they both seem to have been a bit traumatized by our long absence and a dog sitter they didn’t know. It definitely made Zoë more anxious, food driven, and possessive. Last weekend, Zoë found an old semi-desiccated pelt of a squirrel or maybe a rabbit. I told her to drop it. I might as well have told her to do long division. I tried to pry it out of her mouth. A small piece came free. But Zoë then concluded that she needed to hide it from me. Normally that would mean running off into the woods and burying it. But she was on leash and I couldn’t let her off where we were. So she used her only other hiding place: Her belly. She chewed that thing like a sheet of paper made of furry rabbit jerky (which it pretty much was) and swallowed all of it. I’ve waited all week for signs it made her sick. But nope, the iron gut Dingo scored another win. Pippa, for her part, has gotten just a little harder to photograph. She’s not the canine Greta Garbo Zoë is (“No pictures!”) but she turns her head more just when I’m about to take a picture. The cats are fine. Ralph, too, seems increasingly convinced I’m the sole human now. So he’s a bit nicer to me. Meanwhile, Ozzie and Lori, my late sister-in-law’s cats, are starting to assimilate into the dual monarchy of my mom and Fafoon.
And now, the weird stuff
Correction, January 15: This piece initially misspelled Jeanine Pirro’s first name.