During the past few years, innumerable commentators have lamented the partisan divide in Washington. Although many politicians campaign on their willingness to “reach across the aisle”, when they get to Congress the two parties are more polarized than ever before. A study of Congressional voting patterns shows that the overlap among liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, which characterized Congress in the 1970s, and was still apparent in the 1990s, has entirely disappeared. Measuring political ideology by roll call votes, the most liberal Republicans in Congress are more conservative than the most conservative Democrats.
The polarized parties represent a polarized voting public. Another study shows Americans of the two parties moving further apart since the 1990s. More people are consistent liberals or conservatives than before. More than twice as many Americans as in earlier decades, in both parties, see the other party as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Conservatives tend to be more disdainful of liberals than the other way around, more likely to have friends who mostly share their political views, more likely to want to live in a place where most people share their views, and more likely to be unhappy if an immediate family member married across party lines.
What can explain increasing levels of partisanship? Here’s one answer: Americans of the right and left no longer get the same news.
Before the advent of cable TV and the internet in the 1980s, news meant newspapers, national or local, or the major TV networks. Local newspapers got national news stories from the national papers or from national news services, like Associated Press or United Press International. The goal of these news sources was consistent, although not always achieved: to produce non-partisan information about the nation and the world without editorial comment or bias.
The news landscape has not only expanded rapidly, but changed in nature. Cable TV news networks are often explicitly partisan and internet sites providing news even more so. Talk radio, which had existed since the early 20th century, expanded in the 1970s. Politically oriented radio shows with explicit partisan viewpoints exploded in the 1990s because of the repeal of the Federal Communication Commission’s “fairness doctrine” in 1987. After 1949, broadcasters who wanted a license had to address issues of public importance and had to present a balance of viewpoints. The repeal of the fairness doctrine allowed broadcasters to present consistently partisan viewpoints. Following the success of Rush Limbaugh in the 1990s, conservative talk has come to dominate the airwaves. Cable TV networks are more evenly balanced, with MSNBC at the left end and FOX on the right.
The result has been that liberals and conservatives absorb different information about the world. Liberals get their news mainly from CNN, National Public Radio, the New York Times, and MSNBC. Conservatives overwhelmingly favor FOX News.
Even more striking are the levels of distrust of the other side’s news sources. 81% of consistent liberals distrust FOX News, while 75% of consistent conservatives distrust MSNBC. Those results are not surprising. What I think is a bigger problem is that conservatives distrust nearly all broad sources of national and international news.
The most trusted sources of news for conservatives are FOX News, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, and the Blaze (Glenn Beck’s news network). Among these, only FOX News actually presents news, as opposed to partisan commentary. The only other source of broad news more trusted than distrusted by conservatives is the Wall Street Journal, which only 30% say they trust.
Conservatives distrust all other sources of reported news. Three times as many conservatives distrust the three major TV networks as trust them. Five times as many distrust the Washington Post, and only 3% trust the New York Times, while half distrust it. Conservatives distrust USA Today, the BBC, and CNN. These news sources make up the so-called “mainstream media”. Conservatives have long attacked the major news sources as biased to the left, even when most newspapers endorsed Republican candidates.
The editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times are liberal these days. But aside from that 1% of their content, these newspapers, and a host of other national sources of news, strive for something disdained by Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, and Drudge: non-partisan information gathered by professional reporters. The most conservative Americans don’t want to hear or read that. They seek to become like the most vocal critic of the “lamestream media”, Sarah Palin: ignorant of basic information about the world beyond her front porch. They are absorbing Limbaugh’s racism and sexism, and Beck’s conspiracy theories, without the basic information which would enable them to evaluate these biases.
The self-imposed isolation of conservatives from broad-based news sources and their focus for their understanding of the world on the most ideologically driven commentators of the far right, like Rush Limbaugh, is dangerous. Conservative distrust of everyone who reports information they don’t want to believe makes rational discussion and political compromise impossible. That distrust is self-protection, but also self-deprivation. Without a common basis of knowledge about the world, we will not find our common ground as Americans.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 28, 2014