The New York Times’ Paul Krugman raises an issue that’s old hat to readers of The Moderate Voice but his mentioning it shows how the issue is coming to the forefront: is it turning out that conservative talk radio — radio with hosts who have never seen anything they can’t turn into a partisan rant and ragefest — is the real power in today’s Republican Party?
Power — because talk radio is the quintessential town hall, rallying the faithful to one gathering point. Power — because the talk show hosts can put out their version of what they believe the party line is. Power — because the talk show hosts can get out the word on an actual party line or party line feeler based on their chats with or emails from party bigwigs to communicate to the “troops” on how partisans and perhaps the party will frame an issue. Power — because the talk show hosts can bring down their wrath on GOPers (particularly moderates) who seem “squishy” and don’t follow the megapartisan line, thus making them 21st century versions of the old city political party bosses. Power — because party bigwigs and those in Congress may ultimately adopt (and these days seemingly reliably do) strategical advice given by the hosts. Power — because these hosts more than mainstream media have access to listeners who can be easily won over to the views of a host who they’ve spent X hours a day listening to and watching and who they view as a trusted, credible friend.
Krugman writes in a piece looking at a larger political context:
Utah Republicans have denied Robert Bennett, a very conservative three-term senator, a place on the ballot, because he’s not conservative enough. In Maine, party activists have pushed through a platform calling for, among other things, abolishing both the Federal Reserve and the Department of Education. And it’s becoming ever more apparent that real power within the G.O.P. rests with the ranting talk-show hosts.
Why is this important? Because a talk radio broadcaster’s goals — particularly talented broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh — are not the same as a typical political party’s. Nor do the goals of a talk radio host if met create unity and foster broad coalitions. The only consensus a talk show host seeks is his audience demographic’s consensus…which he himself shapes.
A talk show host’s (quite legitimate) goal is to saw off a portion of the populace, capture and define that key demographic, keep the demographic returning over and over again (which you do by being outrageous and angry), get more of that demographic and deliver it to paying advertisers. Moreover, it’s important to keep in mind that 21st century America is the era of “narrowcasting” where segments are the name of the game versus the 50s and early 60s goal of “broadcasting” — which in effect sought to piece together entertainment coalitions of different ages and groups.
Political parties have traditionally gone for the coalition model — working to keep their base vote happy but also gingerly trying to expand upon it. Since the early days of the Obama administration when some wondered wither the GOP, the Republican Party has seemingly followed the whims of talk show hosts in terms of strategy, no-compromise, and institutionalizing an agressive way to address political foes.
And now, Krugman notes, what was seemingly long under the radar, or an undercurrent no one wanted to address, is increasingly out in the open:
News organizations have taken notice: suddenly, the takeover of the Republican Party by right-wing extremists has become a story (although many reporters seem determined to pretend that something equivalent is happening to the Democrats. It isn’t.) But why is this happening? And in particular, why is it happening now?
The right’s answer, of course, is that it’s about outrage over President Obama’s “socialist” policies — like his health care plan, which is, um, more or less identical to the plan Mitt Romney enacted in Massachusetts. Many on the left argue, instead, that it’s about race, the shock of having a black man in the White House — and there’s surely something to that.
But I’d like to offer two alternative hypotheses: First, Republican extremism was there all along — what’s changed is the willingness of the news media to acknowledge it. Second, to the extent that the power of the party’s extremists really is on the rise, it’s the economy, stupid.
Krugmans’ language is itself “loaded.” Extremism is in the eye of the beholder; someone called an extremist often views the person calling him/her an extremist an extremist as well.
But make no doubt about it: these are not the days when the prevailing political culture is dominated by the voice of The Mighty Middle — which many on the right and left call “The Mushy Middle” (even though centrists, independents and moderates can be passionate, do take stands and do vote).
And talk shows have transformed once issues-oriented politics into the new Professional Wrestling with the good guys who are all good and the bad guys who are all bad (just try to BLOT OUT of your mind emerging images of Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Bachmann in wrestling attire body slamming the opposition with Joe Lieberman in tights picking and choosing which side to fight for, depending on the moment).
Centrist/independent writer John Avlon, who recently was hired by CNN to become a fulltime network pundit, writes extensively of how the two parties’ extremes are “hijacking” American politics in his new must read book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America.
Avlon covers a slew of topics, and is critical of key extreme and polarizing figures in both political parties, but here’s what he notes about talk radio: by the way it is set up, by the kind of audience it creates, it has to top itself by becoming more and more extreme — which begs the question: if talk radio has to get more and more extreme and it is influencing political parties and the polity, just where will this lead if the trend continues? Here’s what Avlon says:
Talk radio is preaching to a declining demographic. It is not surprising that according to some industry experts, talk radio has lots 30 to 40 percent of its ad revenues over the past two years. Its slice of revenue is shrinking.
Note that these figures can change. MORE:
[Broadcasters] who used to present themselves as centrists — for example MSNBC’s Ed Schultz –now dial up partisan anger to 11 every night. These political performers become prisoners of their own shtick — they cannot evolve or they will be called traitors by the tribe they have developed. They can only move in one direction: further out into the extremes….
…..This dynamic also inspires the peddling of paranoia to pump up ratings…
He goes into Glenn Beck here and then writes:
Political entertainers pretend to sell ideology and integrity, but what they are literally selling is advertising — and the pursuit of coin can also lead to some compromising positions….
And on the media in general:
The spin cycle is baked into the booking of guests where predictable partisanship is encouraged. Conflict sells and balanced analysis is considered bad for ratings — it takes too long to get to the truth.
What does this mean to the GOP in particular?
The seamless success of this model in creating issues and crafting narratives has made the out-of-power Republican Party effectively subservient to the conservative media crowd. The tail is wagging the dog; partisan media is driving the GOP message and not the other way around.
GO HERE for an interview Avlon gave to The Economist about right and left extremists in America.
Matthew Yglesias, in a post about a conservative blogger, also notes how the once serious but lively subject of American politics has now evolved into the entertainment realm….where finding ways to get attention (read that: extreme rhetoric) is the name of the game (attention=readers/listeners/viewers=ratings/hits=$$$$):
One of the most disturbing trends in American politics has been the increasing rise of conservative pundits who I don’t think are honestly mistaken or lying for tactical political advantage, but rather just making stuff up because they don’t really care about political activism at all and are just trying to get attention…
….Unfortunately, the country is facing a lot of difficult policy problems in both the short- and medium-term and at just the moment when we could use a better-informed public we’re getting the reverse, and by design.
Of course, it’s always debateable whether someone is making things up or just sees things that way through his or her life experience and political prism. But the larger issue is the influence and impact of talk radio: this is where we are…this is how we evolved. And now the question that needs to be asked (with a shudder) is:
Where will this trending take the Republican party, American politics, the quality of debate — and the ability of political parties to govern when they win power after underming the goal of consensus that helped America through so many moments in its tempestuous history?
Will it forever be (totally) good us against (totally) bad them each time a party now gets in power?
Or will it swerve back to “all of us” again?
Part of the answer is:
Not if talk show hosts have anything to say about it.
HERE’S SOME ADDITIONAL WEBLOG REACTION TO PARTS OF KRUGMAN’S PIECE INCLUDING HIS POINT THAT IN BAD ECONOMIC TIMES COUNTRIES OFTEN TURN RIGHT:
The blog Prairie Weather has this to say about Krugman’s argument:
We’re the frogs. The water has been getting warmer for over a decade. The water is near boiling point…The economic crash is pushing us to the right, not — as one might expect– to the left.
Perhaps, but no one in the mainstream press was particularly alarmed by Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or Regnery’s book output in the Clinton years, and no one was particularly alarmed by the crazies after Democrats took Congress back in 2006.
I think the crazies were ignored until recently because, yes, the elite media did look down on them — but instead of actually expressing contempt, media elitists just ignored them. That gave them free rein. They were able to exert a tremendous amount of influence on American politics while not being subjected to the slightest bit of scrutiny or accountability by the old-line press…
…There still isn’t enough mainstream parsing of the crazies. It’s still not considered alarming that the biggest star of America’s most influential news organization is peddling lunatic conspiracy theories. But, yeah, the press has at least turned the radar on and fired it up to low power. That’s a start.
What we have now is one semi-functioning party, and one party that has apparently lost its mind.