The Right-Wing Media Bubble
In a different thread, a reader remarked to a Trump fan:
The conservative media bubble is giving people on the right a distorted sense of reality. I keep hearing conservatives praying that Wikileaks will finally reveal something devastating about Hillary Clinton, but it’s clear to me that more people are willing to hold their noses and vote for Clinton than for Trump. That’s just how it’s going to go, and all the populist anger in the world isn’t going to change it much.
I don’t know about that, because I don’t pay much attention to the ideological media. Well, scratch that, if you pay attention to the media at all, you are facing an ideology. The most infuriating part of the the liberalism of the mainstream media is that they cloak it from themselves. Anyway, point here is that I don’t spend much time inside the “conservative media bubble,” so I don’t know the extent to which the reader’s claim is true.
But it does give me a reason to post conservative writer and sometime TAC contributor Matthew Sheffield’s recent piece about how the conservative media has brought conservatives to this miserable place in which we find ourselves. Using a wallop of data, Sheffield shows that yes, the mainstream media is very powerful and quite biased to the left. No surprise there, at least not for conservatives. But he also shows that the conservative media is much smaller and weaker than many conservatives think. What’s more, the habits and practices of conservative media serve to tell its audience what it wants to hear, which often results in a false picture of the world — a false picture that has real-life impact. The fact that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee this year, and that the GOP Establishment class didn’t see him coming, is the leading example. Sheffield:
[T]he Right’s media monoculture has created negative feedback loops whereby people with little political acumen like Mark Levin, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck are able to fill Republican voters’ heads with nonsensical ideas like planning to shut down the government with no backup plan or electing fewer GOP officeholders in pursuit of more “pure” ones, primarily because they grossly overestimate the number of conservatives in America. It is poetic justice that many of the same people who pushed these naive positions and strategies saw their own imbecilic noise machine turned against their preferred presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, in this year’s Republican primaries.
More center-right media outlets could also have been able to detect that the GOP’s economically libertarian message has little to no popularity among average Americans. Since these journalistic structures did not exist, however, the popularity of Donald Trump’s abandonment of that orthodoxy took the Republican elite completely by surprise. It shouldn’t have.
News institutions also serve a very valuable role for the left in providing a place for people who have similar values to remain connected to the larger movement while still maintaining the independence from parties and advocacy groups that they desire. Due to conservatives’ current willingness to spend only on elections and think tanks, people who lean rightward but do not like partisan politics have nowhere to go.
Conservatives and America as a whole are poorer intellectually because of this. While center-right individuals might not always fall in line for a policy battle, having large numbers of journalists who are willing to be skeptical of all sides would be a very good thing as both Left and Right need close scrutiny. Republican elites are now paying the price for refusing to subject the consultants who advise them to the skepticism they deserved.
The seeming success of Fox News and talk radio has made many conservatives think they now have a massive media empire. In truth, they have constructed an intellectual ghetto that no one else wants to visit.
It is demonstrably true that many Americans — conservative and liberal both — have had no understanding why Trump appeals to massive numbers of their fellow citizens. We know that now. Boy, do we. Back in February, as a thought experiment, I posted “A Social Conservative Case For Donald Trump,” putting forth a brief argument for why social conservatives may believe a vote for Trump is justified. You would have thought I had put a Lucifer For President sign in my yard by the way some conservatives reacted. I plainly wasn’t endorsing Trump (you will never see a TAC writer endorse a candidate on this site), but trying to get inside the head of social conservatives who were considering voting for him. Even that was intolerable to some on the Right. The refusal to attempt to empathize is part of why we have Trump today. The thinking was: If Trump is popular with GOP primary voters, then many of the things we Republicans think are true about conservatism in America are not true. Therefore, Trump’s popularity must be ephemeral.
Then Trump said, “Ha!”
That said, Trump boosters are now in a similar situation regarding their candidate versus Hillary. Many of them cannot see why any conservative would find Trump’s behavior over the past 10 days or so revealing of personality characteristics they fear in a president. It’s as if Trump really could do anything, and people would vote for him, because he’s Not Hillary. There are tens of millions of people like that in America, but not enough to give Trump a victory in November. I encourage my fellow conservatives who have declared for Trump to consider whether or not they have created the same pro-Trump epistemic bubble for themselves that the anti-Trump GOP Establishment created for itself. Polls show that most Americans do not trust Hillary Clinton. But I don’t think most Americans regard her as so beyond-the-pale horrible that it justifies voting for someone as unstable and weird as Donald Trump.
Somebody on the Left, can’t remember who, came up with this sardonic and insightful line to describe the mental habits of Republicans: “Conservatism cannot fail; it can only be failed.” This is how the ideological mind works. Losses mean that we have failed to be sufficiently pure in our beliefs, or to work hard enough to articulate them persuasively. It rarely if ever occurs to the ideological mind that maybe those beliefs are wrong, or at least not persuasive to others for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the case made for them or the character of those making the case.
Among my tribe — conservative Christians — we are faced with bitter-enders who believe against the evidence that America Can Be Reclaimed For Christ if only we double down on what we’ve been doing, and get more Republicans elected. It’s simply untrue. I mean, we can never say that America cannot be converted; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that many of us do not have a realistic sense of who we are, what America has become, and the distance between those two things. A Lutheran pastor wrote me this week to encourage me about the Benedict Option, and to say that he struggles to get his congregation to understand the world that we’re all living in now, and the one that we are soon going to be living in. They prefer their comfortable illusions to unsettling truths.
We all do. It’s human nature. But we have to try all the time to discern what we are missing. We all have ideals, but if we want to have a realistic hope of seeing those ideals achieved, we have to start with a clear understanding of the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.