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The Nature of Conservative Ideology in the Mass Public
The conservative movement’s strategy and success in building an alternative network of ideological media has required accommodating the perennially ambivalent structure of public opinion in the United States. The American electorate has consistently leaned to the left in its specific policy preferences, even during periods when the Republican Party has achieved considerable electoral success at the national level. Yet citizens have collectively held more conservative attitudes on the general scope of government and the relative merits of liberal and conservative ideology. Conservatism as a brand name, or as a collection of general principles and values, is consistently more popular than conservatism as a package of detailed policy positions.
Figure 1.1 illustrates the enduring gap between the public’s operationally liberal policy views (and preference for the Democratic Party over the Republican Party) on one hand and its conservative symbolic commitments on the other. It displays the average percentage of respondents giving liberal answers on questions about public policy issues out of all those giving liberal or conservative answers, the percentage identifying as Democrats out of those identifying with one of the two major parties, the percentage identifying as liberals out of all those identifying with an ideological group, and the percentage giving a liberal answer on broader questions about the size and scope of government out of those giving a liberal or conservative answer. All measures are coded such that higher scores indicate greater relative liberalism; the value of 50% denotes an equal number of liberal and conservative responses.
The results show that the public has long been relatively liberal on specific policy issues and relatively conservative on ideological self-identification and general attitudes toward government. To court greater popular support, conservative politicians seek to shift the terms of partisan debate away from specific policy proposals and toward larger ideological or symbolic predispositions on which they enjoy a corresponding numerical advantage in the American electorate (Gross- mann & Hopkins, 2016). They emphasize the concepts and themes of limited government, individualism, patriotism, nationalism, moral traditionalism, and conservatism as a cause in itself—along with stoking Americans’ antipathy toward socialism, communism, and “the left.” The indicators in Figure 1.1 follow a thermostatic pattern: they tend to move against the party in power, with conservative attitudes gaining support during Democratic administrations (as national policy shifts leftward) and losing it during periods of Republican rule—including the Trump presidency.
Conservative elites have long perceived the mainstream media, including both print and broadcast outlets, as hostile to their viewpoint, but it took considerable
FIGURE 1.1 Party, Policy, and Ideology in the American Public, 1958—2018 Source: James Stimson data collection (stimson.web.unc.edu), updated with Gallup polls.
time to transmit these suspicions to conservative citizens. Reporters have long disproportionately self-identified as liberals compared to the general public, but Republicans in the electorate did not always distrust them at dramatically higher rates than Democrats. Aversion to the (nonconservative) media has increased significantly among Republican citizens over the past 15 years, producing a substantial gap between the parties (see Figure 1.2).
From the beginning, conservative media groups adopted a strategy of criticizing mainstream sources as tainted by liberalism and thus untrustworthy, positioning themselves as the sole source of legitimate information and promoting conservatism as a salient political identity. Conservatives created organizations to monitor liberal bias in the media and repeatedly complained of slanted coverage during campaigns. They organized themselves via ideologically oriented media attached to conservative organizations as early as the 1950s, in both elite print publications and popular radio broadcasts. Their strategy was self-reinforcing, as right-leaning citizens came to rely more on conservative media and became less trusting of other news sources. Conservative organizations’ emphasis on ideology' rather than partisanship as the primary divide in American politics similarly represented a strategic calculation, since the number of self-identified conservative Democrats consistently outnumbered liberal Republicans in the national electorate and were particularly concentrated in the politically shifting South.
Although conservatives have maintained an advantage over liberals in talk radio programming since the 1950s and long sought a television channel that similarly promulgated their views, they lacked a large broadcast infrastructure until the rise of Rush Limbaugh and his imitators in the 1990s and the subsequent founding of
FIGURE 1.2 Confidence in the Media by Party, 1997—2018
Source: Gallup polls, gallup.com.
the Fox News Channel network. As Figure 1.3 reveals, Fox and MSNBC both attracted low ratings during their early years in the late 1990s, when MSNBC offered a mix of liberal and conservative commentators and Fox was far less stridently conservative than it is today. In the wake of George W. Bush’s 2000 election, and especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Fox became a nationalistic conservative outlet with a prime-time lineup of commentary from the right. As a result, it gained a much larger audience, eventually surpassing CNN to become the most popular news channel on cable. Fox still attracts a more limited viewership than local or network news—but it effectively reaches the Republican base, with some activists watching Fox for hours per week.
Studies taking advantage of plausibly exogenous variation in Fox News viewer- ship based on its early roll-out or its arbitrary early channel position estimate that exposure to Fox exerted large positive effects on voting for Republican candidates (see Martin & Yurukoglu, 2017) and produced more conservative voting records among congressional representatives (Clinton & Enamorado, 2014). Although studies of MSNBC do not show these same aggregate effects, experiments that force subjects to watch the channel do produce some changes in political attitudes (Levendusky, 2013), suggesting that the surge in MSNBC viewership since the election of Trump (see Figure 1.3) may eventually influence public opinion in the opposite direction.
Like previous conservative media sources, Fox News combines its ideological advocacy with repeated denunciations of other journalistic sources, persuading its audience that the coverage of rival organizations such as CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the major broadcast networks is rife with liberal propaganda and intentionally slanted against conservatives. Fox News segments
FIGURE 1.3 Viewership ot MSNBC and Fox News Channel, 1998-2019
Source: Nielson data from the Pew Research Center, updated using Ad Week news stories.
describing the failures or scandals of Democratic politicians are invariably accompanied by claims that the stories are being systematically distorted or ignored by a mainstream media universe that intentionally skews the news to advance its own political goals. Notably, the rise in Fox News viewership between 2002 and the present (as denoted by Figure 1.3) coincides with the decay in Republican citizens’ confidence in the news media over the same period (as depicted in Figure 1.2).
In the early Bush-era period of “netroots” political organizing associated with DailyKos, some commentators suggested that the political left might build an advantage on the internet that would counteract the conservative edge in broadcast media. Although many left-of-center digital outlets have maintained significant audiences (with the most successful, HuffPost, moving toward entertainment journalism), conservative media has increased its presence online as well. Long-running outlets like drudgereport.com, wsj.com, wnd.com, and nypost. com have been joined in more recent years by breitbart.com, dailycaller.com, conservativetribune.com, and westernjournal.com. There are also more conspiratorial popular websites like zerohedge.com and thegatewaypundit.com, which have been associated with spreading pro-Trump fake news stories during the 2016 campaign. An “alt-right” universe of organizations and citizens, concentrated in online social networks, has further shifted Republican-aligned activism toward racial conservatism and hostility toward ethnic and religious minorities.
The rise of the conservative media universe over the past few decades does not appear to have exerted a major persuasive effect on the American public as a whole. But messages from conservative media sources have worked to activate the existing symbolic predispositions of their audience and, by discrediting alternative sources of information, insulated them from countervailing forms of influence. Just as Republican politicians seek votes, conservative media figures seek viewers, listeners, and readers—encouraging them, too, to emphasize broad symbolic themes that resonate with large sectors of the public rather than focusing on conservative policy details that are not always popular even with their own audiences.
The content of conservative media is dominated by broad social and cultural appeals (including support for the military and law enforcement, defense of religious faith and traditional “family values” against perceived societal threats, and attacks on personifications of liberalism such as journalists, academics, and feminists) rather than the promotion of specific conservative economic and domestic policy initiatives such as Medicare reform or corporate tax cuts. Fox News was an innovator not only in its conservative viewpoint but also in its sensationalism— with striking graphics, banner breaking-news headlines, and bold accusations of ubiquitous liberal treachery, corruption, and conspiracy. Conservative media coverage also commonly focuses on a small number of topics that are the subject of repeated invocation and discussion: Barack Obama’s supposed “apology' tour” abroad; the IRS’s alleged mistreatment of conservative political groups; Hillary
Clinton’s private email server; and handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Conservative talk radio and television hosts (including Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, who currently appear on both platforms) advance the view that conservatives are perpetually on the edge of losing an existential fight with the left—even during periods of unified Republican control of the federal government. Each public controversy that attracts their attention, many of which are not even policy issues as traditionally defined, is framed as central to a larger ideological battle between conservatives attempting to preserve traditional American ways and liberals bent on remaking the nation into something new and unfamiliar. According to this perspective, liberal leaders’ claims of sympathy with the disadvantaged are a smokescreen for making them indefinitely dependent on government benefits provided by the Democratic Party. But conservative media authorities also reserve some of their anger for a Republican “establishment” whom they accuse of kowtowing to Washington insiders and mainstream media outlets, and they understand that major elements of the elite-level Republican policy agenda do not inspire enthusiastic support among their mass audience. As a result, a complicated and sometimes acrimonious relationship exists between the newly empowered faction of conservative radio, television, and internet personalities and the more traditional conservative leadership class in government, think tanks, opinion journals, and the business world.