Kevin Drum has published a lengthy, very thoughtful and well-documented article in Mother Jones, investigating the sources of America’s anger.
As he points out, Americans aren’t indiscriminately angry: we’re angry about politics–and “way, way angrier” than we used to be. The question, of course, is: what accounts for the degree of animus that characterizes today’s partisan divide?
Drum points to survey research showing that partisan ire is significantly higher than in the past. He then– meticulously–examines the “usual suspects”–the villains identified by the chattering classes as likely causes. Spoiler alert: he finds them wanting.
I’ve been spending considerable time digging into the source of our collective rage, and the answer to this question is trickier than most people think. For starters, any good answer has to fit the timeline of when our national temper tantrum began—roughly around the year 2000. The answer also has to be true: That is, it needs to be a genuine change from past behavior—maybe an inflection point or a sudden acceleration. Once you put those two things together, the number of candidates plummets.
Drum goes through both those “usual suspects” and the data, eliminating conspiracy theories (as Hofstadter in particular made clear in his Paranoid Style in American Politics, a “fondness for conspiracy theories has pervaded American culture from the very beginning.”) and providing several examples equivalent to the nutty QAnon beliefs with which we are familiar.
He also deconstructs the effects of social media, despite acknowledging many of the concerns about it.
Social media can’t be the main explanation for a trend that started 20 years ago. When you’re faced with trying to account for a sudden new eruption on the political scene like Donald Trump, it’s easy to think that the explanation must be something shiny and new, and social media is the obvious candidate. This is doubly true for someone whose meteoric rise was fueled by his deranged Twitter account. But the evidence simply doesn’t back that up.
Drum even considers the possibility that our national anger has been triggered by reality– by things in the country getting worse: manufacturing jobs disappearing, middle-class incomes stagnating–and for conservatives, the steady liberalization of cultural norms. But as he points out, with examples–contrary to conventional wisdom, a lot of things have gotten better, not worse. Even racism has declined.
So–if the “usual suspects” aren’t the cause, what is? Why has American trust in government plummeted and hostility toward political opponents skyrocketed?
To find an answer, then, we need to look for things that (a) are politically salient and (b) have changed dramatically over the past two to three decades. The most obvious one is Fox News.
When it debuted in 1996, Fox News was an afterthought in Republican politics. But after switching to a more hardline conservatism in the late ’90s it quickly attracted viewership from more than a third of all Republicans by the early 2000s. And as anyone who’s watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times—from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory—but it’s always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America, usually with a large dose of thinly veiled racism to give it emotional heft. If you listen to this on a daily basis, is it any wonder that your trust in government would plummet? And on the flip side, if you’re a progressive watching what conservatives are doing in response to Fox News, is it any wonder that your trust in government might plummet as well?
The anger generated by Fox has demonstrable political consequences.
Rage toward Democrats means more votes for Republicans. As far back as 2007 researchers learned that the mere presence of Fox News on a cable system increased Republican vote share by nearly 1 percent. A more recent study estimates that a minuscule 150 seconds per week of watching Fox News can increase the Republican vote share. In a study of real-life impact, researchers found that this means the mere existence of Fox News on a cable system induced somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of non-Republicans to vote for the Republican Party in the 2000 presidential election.
Finally, Drum notes that the political effects of Fox News have been magnified by religion–more specifically, its decline.
This decline has been felt acutely by Republicans in particular. White evangelicals may have been the political stars of the Reagan era, but since their peak during the ’90s, Republicans have watched despondently as the reach and influence of conservative Christians has fallen even within their own party….
We’ve seen the impact of this increasingly powerful combination over the past several months, climaxing in the insurrection of January 6. But the insurrection itself was merely the most dramatic moment of a long campaign—and the campaign continues. How, we wonder, can so many people believe what Trump says about election fraud? How can they be willing to jettison democracy in favor of a demagogue? The answer comes into focus when you look at the past couple of decades. Thanks to Fox News, conservative trust in government is so low that Republican partisans can easily believe Democrats have cheated on a mass scale, and white evangelicals in particular are willing to fight with the spirit of someone literally facing Armageddon.
I think he’s right–and I have no idea what we can do about it.