Much has been written in the media, from the mainstream to the crazy far right, about the anger in our society these days. I am not going to rehash all of that. So don’t tune out quite yet.
Pundits have pontificated about this ever since Trump’s stunning win in ’16. The anger and distrust of government, and Trump’s pandering to it with his “drain the swamp” rhetoric, was undoubtedly a major factor in his win. But Trump didn’t create that anger. All the controversial issues fueling that anger have been around for quite a while. A long and detailed article in Mother Jones magazine[i] addresses this, taking each purported cause, analyzing it…and dismissing it. All but one. But I’ll save that for later, so don’t quit reading now.
Briefly, here’s their analysis:
Conspiracy theories are rampant, especially on the far right, these days. But this was true back in the sixties. Richard Hofstadter wrote a book in 1964 titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” His description of conspiracy theorists from that time, and even earlier, sounds much like the ones we have today. But, that did not result in our current dysfunctional political system.
How about the rise of social media? It has enabled the rapid spread of “fake news,” creating confusion and anger. Recent studies by Pew and others have found most people don’t get their political news from social media, although many belong to “bubbles” of like-minded people on Facebook, for example. Their political views are probably reinforced there, but the overall effect is minor.
Is it just because things have really gotten worse for Joe Sixpack? Middle class wage stagnation, economic insecurity, liberalization of cultural norms on abortion, same sex marriage, etc. are all adverse trends that could create anger and distrust of government, and liberal politicians. The decline of the middle class is often cited as a cause of the anger, but if you look at the numbers, things have actually gotten better in recent years. While income inequality has gone up, wages have actually increased, albeit modestly, for workers. Crime rates and unemployment were down before the pandemic, and poverty had decreased. Republicans have been trying to weaponize opposition to immigration, but there is little evidence that this issue has created a major surge in political anger. Has racism increased? Data from surveys shows that racism has not increased in recent years. It has either remained steady, or declined.
While these issues did increase anger on the Right, none of them are a major cause of our national tantrum.
It is clear that trust in government has decreased in recent years, especially on the Right. After declining during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, it remained fairly constant for more than twenty years. And then. it nosedived around the beginning of this century. What changed?
The appearance of a major new media player.
Fox.”News” appeared in 1996. At first, it didn’t have much effect, but when it switched to a hard-line conservatism, its viewership climbed steadily. Its fundamental message since then has been rage at what liberals are doing to our country, usually with a large dose of thinly-veiled racism to appeal to that segment of the electorate. As its influence spread, trust in government declined, and the hatred of “libs” grew.
As far back as 2007, the presence of Fox on a cable system increased Republican vote share. At first it was small, maybe 1%, but it has gradually increased. A study in 2008 found that it had increased to over 6%. It’s probably higher now. Critical race theory was an academic obscurity until Fox decided to escalate it. Now, it is one of the major talking points for right wing pundits and politicians.
Why is Fox so influential? Part of it is that they call themselves “Fox News.” They act like a mainstream news outlet, with well-dressed anchors and all the other trappings of a major news outlet. Of course, they are nothing of the kind. They are a right wing Republican propaganda outfit. But a lot of people buy the package. Surveys have shown that 65% of Republicans trust Fox…and distrust all the other major news outlets. Even after lawyers had to admit in court that Tucker Carlson “isn’t stating actual facts” and engages in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary.” But his viewers lap it up, and are enraged.
The article sums it up as follows:
We all know Donald Trump isn’t the cause of the Republican Party’s descent into madness. He’s merely the result of decades of evolution that started when Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, Rush Limbaugh picked up a microphone and Newt Gingrich reinvented modern conservatism. But those were just warm-up acts. It wasn’t until Fox News was up and running that we started to see permanent changes in the electorate.
The past couple of decades have seen a steady increase in the belief among white people – particularly Republicans – that anti-white bias is a serious problem. Fox News has stoked this fear almost since the beginning, culminating this year in Tucker’s full-throated embrace of white supremacist “replacement theory” and the seemingly 24/7 campaign against critical race theory and its alleged impact on white schoolkids. This is certainly not all that Fox News does, but it’s a big part of its pitch, and it fits hand-in-glove with Trump’s appeal to white racism.
Fox stokes a constant sense of outrage among its base of viewers, largely by highlighting narratives of white resentment, and threats to Christianity. This in turn forces Republican politicians to follow suit. It’s a positive feedback loop that has no obvious braking system, and it has already radicalized the conservative base so much that most Republicans literally believe that elections are being stolen and democracy is all but dead if they don’t take extreme action.
In short, Fox is bringing down our political system.
The final paragraph in the article makes it clear what needs to be done:
For the past 20 years the fight between liberals and conservatives has been razor close with neither side making more than minor and temporary progress in what’s been essentially trench warfare. We can only break free of this by staying clear-eyed about what really sustains this war. It is Fox News that has torched the American political system over the past two decades, and it is Fox News that we have to continue to fight.
[i] Mother Jones September/October 2021, p. 18