I haven’t thought about the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in a long time. But a very smart post-election discussion by two Princeton political historians brought it to mind as a possible key factor in explaining not only the result of the 2016 election but in the growing polarization of our society across partisan and ideological lines, a polarization that contributes to the demise of compromise and often seems to be rendering our society ungovernable.
Any such notion is susceptible to exaggeration. So proceed carefully if you are inclined to think it through. I just want to put it on the table as we – some of us at least – struggle to understand what has happened to the news-and-politics continuum over recent decades.
For background: Before the age of cable TV, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates TV and radio broadcasting, enforced a rule call the Fairness Doctrine. TV and radio stations were expected to have a certain amount of news and public affairs programming as a condition of holding their licenses but were required to be relatively even-handed and allow for a range of opposing views to be broadcast. This led to the early decades of TV news being dominated by the old-fashioned, so-called “objectivity” model personified by Walter Cronkite. The contemporary model of Fox and MSNBC catering to a conservative or liberal audience would have violated the doctrine.
Maybe that sounds like official censorship to you, but the Supreme Court was asked that question and ruled that the Fairness Doctrine was permissible under the First Amendment because of the limited number of broadcast licenses.
Cable TV blew the limits off that number, and now the internet has further reduced any limits on how many voices can be heard. The FCC dropped the “fairness” rule in 1987. Fox, MSNBC and talk radio have prospered with a lineup that caters to a left- or -right-oriented audience that apparently likes to have its biases confirmed and reinforced.
The ideological hardening of the right was often said to have been facilitated by what some call the “Fox news effect,” referring to the tendency of the Fox News Network to preach and constantly confirm a one-sided set of conservative facts and arguments. MSNBC may have a similar effect on the left, but has a smaller audience and a smaller impact.
This piece from the Pew Research Center includes a bar graph showing the huge domination of Fox as the main source of news for Trump voters, more than double the numbers of Clinton voters who favored any news sources.
More than a year ago, I interviewed The New Yorker magazine’s Hendrik Hertzberg just as Trump was establishing his dominance in the Republican field. Hertzberg argued that not only Fox but right-wing talk radio was “infantilizing” some conservatives into a fairly simple good-versus-evil analysis of all policy matters. Hertzberg analogized this trend to the battle between heroes and villains of professional wrestling.
Well, if that’s what it was, it seems to have worked. We have a president who casts many complicated policy matters in simplistic good-vs.-evil terms (and, as you have perhaps noticed, his side is always the side of goodness).
So, to loop back to where I started: For a recent weekend of alumni events, Princeton University staged a conversation between two eminent historians of U.S. politics, Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse, about the meaning of the election in historical context.
The transcript of the conversation is here, and includes many big insights, coupled with the usual disclaimer that, as historians, they can draw on the past to create a context for understanding the present, but not to predict the future. I often wish all the TV pundits would stop asking each other what’s going to happen next and/or pretending that they know.
But, if you can handle the modesty of that disclaimer, Wilentz and Kruse provided a lot of context that actually made me feel a little better about the present moment. A few excerpts below, starting with the one that set me off on the Fairness Doctrine.
From Kruse, talking about the role of the Newt Gingrich revolution in Republican congressional politics in paving the way for the Trump moment: “Well, with the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 by the Reagan administration, and the rise of first talk radio and then the internet, you have a very fractured media landscape in which you don’t have to offer both sides. You instead press one point of view very aggressively. And so you had the rise of Rush Limbaugh, the rise of Matt Drudge. You had the creation of, then, Fox News. And there were efforts on the left to try to counter this. They were never as effective as those on the right. But you see the media landscape start to fracture, and so politics becomes incredibly polarized.”
Also during the discussion, Wilentz commented that recent polarization has created “A dynamic … that has led to a radicalization of both parties so that neither party’s really a party anymore.”
Kruse: What do you mean, not a party?
Wilentz: In the sense that the middle is gone. I mean, political parties historically in American history have always been filters. They’ve always been coalitions, and they act as a stabilizing force in American history. We’re Americans and we’re never going to agree about everything, and there ought to be conflict in politics.
But up till now it had been run by parties that had coalitions which, in effect, helped stifle some of those arguments before they became part of a general election. That has fallen away. You had a party structure in the last election on the Republican side that collapsed in the face of a challenge from outside. Say what you will about the president, he was not a Republican particularly before he ran for president. He was able to take that party’s base and move it elsewhere. That’s unthinkable, I think, in a party era.
Later, Wilentz asked Kruse: “So where did Trump come from? I mean, how do we explain this?
Kruse: Well, we’ve seen all the parts of Trump before. We’ve seen the nativism. We’ve seen the hostility and the use of immigration as a political issue. We’ve seen the nationalism. We’ve seen the conservative populism, the people like George Wallace. I think that what’s really novel here is that these different things that had existed in isolation have come together and really swept away both the conservative opposition that we saw in the primary, and then swept away clean in the general election. We’ve seen bits and pieces of this before, but his success came from putting those together and fueling them in a way that we’d never seen before.
Wilentz: I think that’s right. The question is why did it come together now rather than before? I mean, the Trump phenomenon, people are saying, is not just an American phenomenon, right? There’s Brexit. There’s everything that’s going on in Western Europe. There’s the Russians, always out there somewhere. I’m wondering whether the events of 2008 — the financial collapse — were such a shock to the political system and the ways in which people live their lives that someone like Trump could emerge.
When Trump came down the escalator in Trump Tower, no one thought anything was going to happen. But what I think he understood was that the Republican Party had lost touch with its base. Finally the base turned around and basically flipped them the finger and said, “We’re going with this guy.” The issues that he was talking about — like trade — those are all explicable coming off of 2008. But I also think the political dynamic went back further and that finally … maybe Trump is Thermidor. Trump is the end of the process.
Finally, an exchange in which Wilentz calls it ironic that Hillary Clinton lost as a result of working class voters defecting to Trump — ironic because Bill Clinton had been the most recent Democrat to draw working class voters back to the Democrats:
Wilentz: I think 2008 did change the landscape, especially for the Clinton wing of the party. Hillary Clinton had to run against some of her husband’s actions because the world had changed in 2008. One of the ironies was that Bill Clinton brought a section of the white working class back into the Democratic Party. He took some of those Reagan Democrats back. Those are the people who ended up electing Trump. The irony couldn’t be greater. The Democrats are going to have to figure out again what they’re about.
Kruse: I think it’s also about how they made their appeal. I don’t want to bash identity politics here, but to some degree they played up not just issues of her being the first woman, but also Trump’s sexism. Rather than play ads about moderate Republicans who couldn’t look their daughters in the eye, they should have been playing ads about working-class contractors that Trump stiffed. It’s what they did with Romney — presented him as the boss who fired you, and everybody could relate to that. And I think if you play those ads in Michigan, that’s going to resonate with people a lot more.
Wilentz: I don’t think that the candidate [he’s referring to Hillary Clinton] used the words “jobs” or “infrastructure” from the convention on, for example. Politically dopey.