Thursday, December 15, 2011

If you want to prognosticate about Republicans, pay attention to the epistemic closure

Jared Bernstein is filling in for Steve Benen yesterday and today while Benen takes a very well deserved couple of days off. I enjoy reading Bernstein (he's on my blogroll) but lately I've been noticing that he's making the same mistake many regular journalists are making when it comes to analyzing the Republican primary.

Yesterday Bernstein noted the all-out attack on Gingrich from other candidates as well as some slippage in his poll numbers. Here's what he attributes it to.

One factor? Here’s where Newt’s unpopularity among highly visible conservative opinion leaders matters. Because practically no one appears to be rallying to his side.

When Bernstein refers to the "highly visible conservative opinion leaders," he's talking about the Republican Party political establishment. And he thinks what they say affects the Republican voter base. I don't agree.

This week Jonathan Freedland captured what I've been trying to say all along. Only he was much better and more comprehensive in doing so. He's referring to what Josh Marshall called "The Murdoch Primary." In other words, its all about Fox News.

It's not just usual-suspect lefties and professional Murdoch-haters who say it, mischievously exaggerating the cable TV network's influence. Dick Morris, veteran political operative and Fox regular, noted the phenomenon himself the other day while sitting on the Fox sofa. "This is a phenomenon of this year's election," he said. "You don't win Iowa in Iowa. You win it on this couch. You win it on Fox News." In other words, it is Fox – with the largest cable news audience, representing a huge chunk of the Republican base – that is, in effect, picking the party's nominee to face Obama next November.

This doesn't work crudely – not that crudely, anyway. Roger Ailes, the Fox boss, does not deliver a newspaper-style endorsement of a single, anointed candidate. Rather, some are put in the sunlight, and others left to moulder in the shade. The Media Matters organisation keeps tabs on what it calls the Fox Primary, measuring by the minute who gets the most airtime. It has charted a striking correlation, with an increase in a candidate's Fox appearances regularly followed by a surge in the opinion polls. Herman Cain and Rick Perry both benefited from that Fox effect, with Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, the latest: in the days before he broke from the pack, Gingrich topped the Fox airtime chart. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney cannot seem to break through a 20-to-25% ceiling in the polls – hardly surprising considering, as the league table shows, he has never been a Fox favourite.

The other person who's been on this story since he got banished from conservative circles for calling health care reform the Republican Waterloo is David Frum. Here's what he said about it more recently.

Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment—and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much. As a tool of political mobilization, it backfires, by inciting followers to the point at which they force leaders into confrontations where everybody loses, like the summertime showdown over the debt ceiling.

Over a year ago Julian Sanchez started a blogging firestorm after he talked about "epistemic closure" on the political right. What he meant by that is that they have their sources of news that they pay attention to and anything that contradicts what they hear from those sources is dismissed. In other words, its a closed-loop system. Sometimes the louder people speak against what it is they have been led to believe, the more the system kicks in to demonize the source of the dissonance. Here's Brent Bozell doing just that.

The media elite and the Republican ruling class are remarkably similar in their political projection for the coming year. Journalists spent the entire year savaging every fast-rising challenger to Mitt Romney. The GOP's power pundits became equally agitated at the sniff of a conservative anywhere near the top of the GOP pack.

It's the odor of extremism that both the elites in the media and the GOP have detested — always.

So here we are, on the cusp of the election year, and both these groups have one primary target: Newt Gingrich.

My advice to journalists who want to try to predict what the Republican base voters will do is to suspend your rational addiction to the policy issues, the back-and-forth between the candidates, the arguments over the candidate's personal history and/or proposals, etc. What you should be paying attention to is what happens on Fox News and conservative talk radio.

As an example, this from Fox News yesterday was not a mistake. Here's the Murdoch Primary at work. Get it?


  1. Best title I've read in some time! The rest good too!

  2. I think David Frum really hit on the key here. Right Wing media thrives in an atmosphere of conflict. That doesn't mean they necessarily want Republicans to win, because winning means they suddenly have to defend GOP policies (think the Bush years) and that just isn't as much fun as throwing bombs at the Democrats.

    So right wing media has a perverse incentive to sabotage Republican political prospects. I'd love to see a comprehensive analysis of FOX/Limbaugh ratings as it relates to those who hold political office. My bet is that their ratings go up when Democrats win.

  3. @ChrisAndersen - kinda like Michael Moore has an incentive to sabotage the President - shitty GOP policies sells books written by Michael Moore.