I have a self-identified progressive friend who takes a perverse and masochistic interest in watching Fox News and frequently listening to Rush Limbaugh. He is quick to tell anyone that he doesn’t believe a syllable of what he hears from the right-wing media.
“You have to know what the enemy is thinking,” he says, when asked why he tortures himself. “How else can I understand what they’re doing and how they’re telling people to act if I don’t snoop on their media?”
My friend has it twisted. It’s not the right-wing media that’s leading conservative voters astray; it’s quite the opposite. For proof, take a look at the efforts of Democracy Corps, a Democratic-leaning public opinion and strategic consulting firm that is “mapping the Republican brain” in an effort to understand why our national politics is mired in seemingly intractable gridlock.
Over the summer, the group—headed by Stan Greenberg and James Carville, who both worked as political strategists in former President Bill Clinton’s White House—conducted six focus groups with voters who said they voted only or mostly for GOP candidates. In Raleigh, North Carolina, they spoke with self-identified Tea Party supporters and moderate Republicans; in Roanoke, Virginia, it was Tea Party supporters and evangelical Christians; and in Colorado Springs, Colorado, they talked with moderates and evangelicals.
What they found is downright frightening. The study, titled “Inside the GOP: Report on Focus Groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and Moderate Republicans” and written by Greenberg, Carville, and Erica Seifert, opens with an apocalyptic scenario:
If you want to understand the government shutdown and crisis in Washington, you need to get inside the base of the Republican Party. …
Understand that the base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country—and their starting reaction is “worried,” “discouraged,” “scared,” and “concerned” about the direction of the country—and a little powerless to change course. They think [President Barack] Obama has imposed his agenda, while Republicans in DC let him get away with it.
From there, it gets worse:
While many voters, even some Democrats, question whether Obama is succeeding and getting his agenda done, [core] Republicans think he has won. The country may think gridlock has won, particularly during a Republican-led government shut down, but Republicans see a president who has fooled and manipulated the public, lied, and gotten his secret socialist-Marxist agenda done. Republicans and their kind of Americans are losing.
Admittedly, the Democracy Corps report is impressionistic and based on focus groups; therefore, it can’t be exaggerated into a scientific study. Still, as pundit-blogger Andrew Sullivan accurately notes, “It’s a sobering read … and definitely helps explain the primal scream now threatening to take down the entire American system of elective government.”
The report is at its discouraging best—or should I say worst?—in the way that it illuminates the thinking of the focus-group participants’ fears surrounding the changing demography of the country. Nobody made crude racial references or spoke in the offensive language of bigots, according to the reports’ writers. Yet a fear of racial change lies at the core of the GOP base’s concerns. The report states:
They have an acute sense that they are white in a country that is becoming increasingly “minority,” [that] their party is getting whooped by a Democratic Party that uses big government programs that benefit mostly minorities, creat[ing] dependency and a new electoral majority.
Or, as one evangelical man in Roanoke put it—apparently blind to the irony of the government shutdown by a small number of Tea Party activists in the U.S. House of Representatives—“The government’s giving in to a [racial] minority, to push an agenda, as far as getting the votes for the next time.”
Of course, irony doesn’t factor into their political worldview when their source of information is Fox News. “It’s the only news channel I watch,” said a Tea Party man from Raleigh. His view was seconded by a Tea Party woman in Roanoke. “I wish there was more Fox News,” she said.
But the problem isn’t Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or Bill O’Reilly. No, the media is a lagging indicator, a business set up to mirror and reflect a part of something much larger. Perhaps, having spent so much of my life as a mainstream journalist, I’m sensitive to critiques of our national media and its role in the polarizing political debate in our country.
It’s too easy—and misguided—to blame the messenger and to overlook the fact that nearly every American has thoughts and opinions and, given an opportunity, will freely share them. In the case of the Tea Party supporters, they voted to send likeminded representatives to Washington and state houses to bring the nation to its knees because they didn’t get their way. That’s how a representative democracy works—or, in the current stalemate, fails to work.
But the bottom line is that voters have to own—and be assigned—responsibility and blame for the decline of political discourse in this country. That’s the most frightening part of the Democracy Corps study. It gives voice to a segment of the public, unfiltered by talking heads or spin doctors, to reveal how their unfounded fear is leading them to willfully close themselves off from their own country—a siege mentality that is shrinking their minds and hearts.
All of us can watch the dire consequences on whatever news channel we prefer.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.