I don’t regularly read Mother Jones, so I had missed a profoundly important analysis by Kevin Drum that ran in that publication last October. I’m indebted to Gerald Stinson for sharing it.
Drum asks: why are Americans so angry? He notes that the anger is almost entirely political (most of us aren’t mad at our families, friends, plumbers)…
Research suggests that our “national temper tantrum” began in 2000, and Drum methodically investigates–and discards– the usual explanations for that vitriol. He demonstrates that Americans are no more addicted to conspiracy theories than we ever were, for example. (Hofstadter wrote about American paranoia back in 1964, after all.)
He also discounts the role of social media, while acknowledging that–like all new forms of communication–it has had a political effect. When we examine how social media affects what we learn about politics, he writes:
This obviously depends on how much political news we get from social media in the first place, which turns out to be surprisingly little—at least when it comes to actual articles or broadcast segments, not hot takes from your Uncle Bob.
And then there’s that pesky timeline: social media can’t explain something that started 20 years ago.
Drum also makes short shrift of the argument that we’re all mad because everything has gotten worse. It hasn’t, and he shares data showing that Americans’ opinions on virtually every aspect of our communal lives has remained constant–albeit with two very troubling exceptions. One is the rise of White grievance:
White respondents believe that anti-white bias has been steadily increasing. And the American National Election Studies, among other polls, have showed this belief in so-called reverse racism is overwhelmingly driven by white Republicans. This trend starts before 2000, but it’s growing and is an obvious candidate to explain rising white anger—as long as there’s something around to keep it front and center in the minds of white people.
The other is a precipitous collapse of trust in government.
If the “usual suspects” don’t explain our current fears, hatreds and political divisions, what does? Drum’s conclusion: Fox News.
When it debuted in 1996, Fox News was an afterthought in Republican politics. But after switching to a more hardline conservatism in the late ’90s it quickly attracted viewership from more than a third of all Republicans by the early 2000s. And as anyone who’s watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times—from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory—but it’s always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America, usually with a large dose of thinly veiled racism to give it emotional heft.
As Drum notes, rage toward Democrats means more votes for Republicans. Creating that rage is what Fox does.
As far back as 2007 researchers learned that the mere presence of Fox News on a cable system increased Republican vote share by nearly 1 percent. A more recent study estimates that a minuscule 150 seconds per week of watching Fox News can increase the Republican vote share. In a study of real-life impact, researchers found that this means the mere existence of Fox News on a cable system induced somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of non-Republicans to vote for the Republican Party in the 2000 presidential election. A more recent study estimates that Fox News produced a Republican increase of 3.59 points in the 2004 share of the two-party presidential vote and 6.34 points in 2008. That’s impact.
As we saw earlier, 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 the 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…
Thanks to Fox News, conservative trust in government is so low that Republican partisans can easily believe Democrats have cheated on a mass scale, and white evangelicals in particular are willing to fight with the spirit of someone literally facing Armageddon.
You really need to read the whole, lengthy analysis.
Drum concludes “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.”
But he doesn’t tell us how.