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New Conservative Media and Traditional Conservative Elites

The development of conservative media and its content reacts to the liberal record of policymaking. The size and scope of government tend to grow over time, with more expansionary than contractionary laws passed and more programs added than eliminated (Grossmann, 2014); social changes are also slowly embraced, with attitudes toward minority groups and nontraditional lifestyles becoming more positive since the 1990s (see Hopkins, 2018). From a conservative perspective, both government policy and broader cultural trends thus drift in a mostly liberal direction even under ostensibly conservative national leadership. These trends have contributed to American conservatives’ sense of being constantly under siege and having their values undermined by a set of hegemonic liberal institutions. It also encourages a sensibility that views each new proposal for government action, especially by a Democratic president, as marking the tipping point in a permanent slide toward socialism or moral decadence. For example, critics on the right characterized the Affordable Care Act (АСА) as not simply a wasteful or unnecessary public program but as an existential threat to the capitalist economy, the limited government prescribed by the Constitution, and the American way of life.

The liberal direction of policymaking puts conservative elites in a bind. The primary policy objective of conservative politicians and other movement leaders is the rollback of public-sector redistributive and regulatory activities, especially at the federal level. The chief political impediment to this goal is the durable popularity' of most existing major domestic programs and a persistent demand from the public for the government to respond to additional social problems as they emerge. Conservative elites address this issue primarily by portraying politics as a broader battle between left and right over the scope of government, the direction of society, and American strength in the world. Because social traditionalism is more popular than libertarianism, they also tend to raise a series of cultural and racial concerns more in campaigns and public discourse than in congressional policymaking. Over the course of a public debate over policy, they are also able to activate symbolic values to reduce the appeal of (even largely economic) Democratic policy proposals by linking them to the broader and less popular concepts of socialism, internationalism, and moral degradation.

As a result, most political elites do not realize how popular specific liberal policy positions tend to be. The conservative movement has succeeded in shaping both Republican and Democratic politicians’ sense of the electorate, making public opinion appear far more conservative than it actually is on specific issues (Broockman & Skovron, 2018). Because citizens’ voting choices are often based on symbolic predispositions rather than policy positions, this systematic misperception has not overwhelmingly disadvantaged Republican candidates. But it has been important to maintain politicians’ adherence to a (usually unpopular) Republican policy agenda in Washington while reducing support for initially popular Democratic proposals.

For example, Republican members of Congress who had been repeatedly elected for six years on the platform of “repealing and replacing” the АСА found, perhaps to their surprise, that the politics of health-care reform shifted abruptly once the prospect of repeal became legislatively realistic upon the inauguration of a Republican president in 2017. Public attention immediately focused on the rise in health-care premiums and reduction of coverage that repealing the АСА would produce, and Republican leaders were unable to formulate an alternative plan that would prevent these politically treacherous consequences while remaining true to their own small-government principles. The partywide enthusiasm for АСА rollback on the campaign trail faded in office as Republican politicians grappled, many for the first time, with the specific policy and political implications of reform. The Republican leadership’s proposed replacement bill received some of the lowest public approval ratings of any recent major legislation, and repeal efforts ultimately fell short in the Senate due to the defection of a handfiil of party moderates. Yet such failures to deliver on campaign promises of large- scale conservative policy achievements merely provide additional ammunition to conservative critics in the news media who charge Republican politicians with insufficient devotion to ideological principles.

Conservative popular media is the key communication channel for Republican elites to transform everyday policy debates and political controversies into what their supporters in the mass public view as life or death battles over the direction of America. But in the process, politicians and traditional movement leaders have empowered a new set of powerful actors who are often followed and trusted more readily by the Republican base. Because the likes of Rush Lim- baugh and Sean Hannity are never forced to make the inevitable compromises of governing that face elected officials, they can maintain a perfectionist stance and critique the performance of Republican politicians from the comfort of their broadcast studios.

Tensions between the purist/wordsmithing and pragmatic/governing strains of the conservative movement are not new. Conservative elites began using media outlets like National Review to build consensus among one another and spread their messages as early as the 1950s. But from the beginning, they faced competition for reaching their base from conspiratorial talk radio hosts and the John Birch Society, which distributed its own propaganda. The vilification of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2000s similarly built on a long history from McCarthyism in the 1950s to the American Spectators Clinton conspiracy peddling in the 1990s.

But the more recent generations of conservative media outlets have succeeded in amassing considerable and arguably unprecedented influence over the internal politics of the Republican Party. Prominent media personalities have steadily gained power within the extended Republican network at the expense of elected officials and legislative leaders, forming an alternative set of party elites with their own priorities and interests. Republican politicians now view conservative media as a key conduit to a restless party' “base” and are visibly fearful of receiving negative coverage, even if satisfying the demands of the conservative media complicates their attempts to win general elections or pursue pragmatic policy achievements once in office.

Some conservative commentators and elected officials, especially those who became associated with the “Never Trump” movement during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, have come to fear that Republican politicians follow the lead of conservative media figures rather than using them as a channel to communicate their messages. Because debates on complex economic matters such as corporate tax policy draw lower audience ratings than those on white- hot “culture war” topics like illegal immigration, critics also express concern that conservative media is moving the Republican agenda toward racially tinged social conservatism and away from a focus on pocketbook issues. Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, joked former George W. Bush speechwriter and anti-Trump Republican reformer David Frum, and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.

But the hard-edged populist style of Fox News, talk radio, and websites like Breitbart and the Daily Caller also fills a void left by the limited mass appeal of the laissez-faire economic program favored by traditional conservative elites and by the lack of a national Republican model of governing success in the nearly 30 years since Ronald Reagan departed the presidency. It is only natural to expect major figures in the conservative media world to be dissatisfied with a suggested division of labor in which they serve as mere cheerleaders for Republican politicians, deemed useful by party leaders solely for mobilizing Republican voters to defeat the Democratic opposition at election time. Conservative media figures demonstrated a growing willingness to assert independent power within the GOP after the electoral defeats of 2006 and 2008, helping to fuel the repeated internal rebellions of the Obama years. Perhaps inevitably, many have decided to make the leap themselves into public office, further strengthening the ties between the governing and broadcasting wings of the Republican Party.

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