Friday, April 01, 2016

What Does Trump Tell Us About Partisan Media Asymmetry?

This morning, Vox published a feature on my academic research with Matt Grossmann of Michigan State University, focusing on our new paper analyzing the asymmetric nature of the American media environment. We demonstrate that the presence of an extensive and influential conservative media universe has become a major component of the fundamental differences separating the two parties, and that Republican preference for explicitly partisan/ideological news sources over the distrusted "mainstream media" (with no corresponding sentiment among Democrats) has become a central attribute of contemporary American politics. Dylan Matthews does a great job of summarizing our arguments and main findings, and the entire paper is publicly available as well. (Here's a previous Vox piece on our party asymmetry project, which will take the form of a book later this year.)

In response, Kevin Drum asks a reasonable question: okay, but what about Donald Trump? Unlike most American conservatives, Trump doesn't talk much about constitutional principles or the virtues of limited government. He opposes cutting entitlement programs, criticizes free trade agreements, and thinks the Iraq War was a big mistake. Does Trump's rise actually demonstrate that, as Drum suggests, "perhaps the Republican coalition isn't as ideologically committed as we thought"?

In our view, the existence of the conservative media universe is actually central to the story of Trump's success. Fox News and other popular media outlets on the right have for years given Trump legitimacy as a political thinker and actor—especially during the Obama administration, when Trump emerged as an outspoken critic of the president. Trump has had some differences with Fox this year, but most of this tension is between Trump and a single Fox host, Megyn Kelly. (Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, by contrast, appear to maintain good relations with Trump.)

Many conservatives out in the wider electorate might have been open to the argument that Trump's various policy apostasies should properly rule him out of membership in the conservative movement, but regular voters are not necessarily going to reach such a conclusion by reasoning on their own. Some political authority that they know and trust would need to make this case against Trump in order for it to stick—and today, the authorities that Republican voters know and trust the most are not elected officials or policy intellectuals but leading personalities in the conservative media empire. By and large, these personalities—Hannity, O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh—have not criticized Trump in this manner, and in fact have often praised him, thus validating him in the eyes of the electorate as a true conservative in good standing.

It doesn't really matter much to Trump's supporters whether or not National Review, Mitt Romney, or the Republican community in Washington finds Trump ideologically acceptable. (By the way, check out Romney's favorability ratings among Republicans these days; he's not exactly a beloved elder statesman in the party.) The key actors in shaping public opinion on the right are conservative radio, cable news, and internet sources; as David Frum once remarked, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering we work for Fox."

For years, these conservative media outlets have played a key role in undermining the popularity of the "Republican establishment" among the party's own voters. It's hardly surprising that conservatives in the electorate are open to a candidate promising to overturn that very establishment—and that large, loud components of the powerful conservative media apparatus are doing little to stop him, if not actively cheering him on.