GOP ‘bub­ble’ buster

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Doyle McManus This in­ter­view has been con­densed and edited. patt.mor­ri­son@la­times.com Twit­ter: @pattm­la­times

Bruce Bartlett has 24-karat con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials. He worked in the Rea­gan White House, the Ge­orge H.W. Bush Trea­sury Depart­ment, for for­mer Texas Rep. Ron Paul and the Her­itage Foun­da­tion. So when he saw Repub­li­cans do­ing things he be­lieved dam­aged the brand, he said so — and was sur­prised to find him­self ig­nored, struck from the rolls of the GOP talk-oc­racy and even fired from his think tank job. And that, he says, is the prob­lem. Bartlett, who is now an in­de­pen­dent, made head­lines re­cently with a schol­arly pa­per about Fox News. In it, he de­scribes a me­dia “bub­ble” that screens out ideas that chal­lenge Repub­li­can or­tho­doxy — in other words, those in­con­ve­nient truths. What was the ge­n­e­sis of the Fox pa­per?

In 2004, I was ex­ten­sively quoted in a New York Times mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle [crit­i­cal of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing]. I as­sumed my con­ser­va­tive friends would give me a lot of trou­ble, but no­body said a word. I fi­nally started ask­ing, “What did you think?” Ev­ery sin­gle one gave me the same an­swer: “I don’t read the New York Times.” Many were mildly in­sulted that I would think they would read what from their point of view was the equiv­a­lent of Pravda.

This was the first in­di­ca­tion I had of the bub­ble con­ser­va­tives now live in. The fact that they would con­sciously close them­selves off to this key source of in­for­ma­tion came as a rev­e­la­tion. It’s got­ten much worse in the last 10 years as con­ser­va­tive me­dia have be­come more avail­able; Fox is just the big­gest. In­side the bub­ble, cer­tain facts are never heard be­cause they’re in­con­ve­nient to the con­ser­va­tive world­view. Global warm­ing is prob­a­bly the big­gest but hardly the only one. You’re no longer a Repub­li­can yet you’re con­cerned that bub­ble-think could dam­age GOP electabil­ity.

A lot of con­ser­va­tives are a bit wor­ried about this. They un­der­stand this isn’t good for the party. It’s go­ing to hurt us in 2016 be­cause if we have peo­ple who are not se­ri­ous can­di­dates, mak­ing ridicu­lous ar­gu­ments about Obama’s in­va­sion of Texas and other crack­pot is­sues, all Hil­lary has to do is noth­ing. Yet Repub­li­cans con­trol Congress and many state leg­is­la­tures, so how is this bub­ble dam­ag­ing the GOP?

[For ex­am­ple,] the 2012 drum­beat on Fox that polls show­ing [Mitt] Rom­ney los­ing were wrong; this was con­sid­ered gospel in the con­ser­va­tive world: “Of course Rom­ney is ahead be­cause our ideas are so popular.” To the ex­tent that it af­fected Repub­li­can strat­egy, they may have de­luded them­selves into a de­feat. If you think your guy is be­hind, you work a lit­tle harder. A Ken­tucky state GOP se­na­tor told a leg­isla­tive hear­ing, “We all agree that the tem­per­a­ture on Mars is ex­actly as it is here.” But Mars is much colder than Earth. What hap­pened to be­ing en­ti­tled to your own opin­ions but not your own facts?

This is a se­vere prob­lem for democ­racy it­self. We can’t go back to the old days of half-hour news broad­casts on the three ma­jor net­works, when peo­ple were forced to have a com­mon source of in­for­ma­tion, at least on a few is­sues. [Now] it’s a rare day that some­body doesn’t go into busi­ness with some new con­ser­va­tive news site. Th­ese peo­ple are good at worm­ing their way into the sys­tem. There seems to be a kind of nonag­gres­sion pact among non-bub­ble me­dia not to say the em­peror is wear­ing no clothes — that Fox is not a le­git­i­mate news source, it’s a pro­pa­ganda source. What do you think is Fox’s end game?

So far they have not been con­fronted by any con­tra­dic­tion be­tween their sup­port for a con­ser­va­tive world­view and mak­ing money and get­ting rat­ings. They tell them­selves no­body is forced to watch; that if some­one wants a dif­fer­ent point of view, all they have to do is change the chan­nel. The path for Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls seems to run through Fox.

I think that’s right. One con­se­quence [is] the huge num­ber of can­di­dates. His­tor­i­cally, the way the Repub­li­can Party has op­er­ated, there’s one guy that every­body agrees: “It’s your turn.” That was true for [John] McCain, for Rom­ney, for Bob Dole be­fore that. Now it’s easy for [can­di­dates] to over­come the thresh­old of name ID be­cause there’s so much con­ser­va­tive me­dia out there that they will le­git­imize can­di­dates for their own pur­pose of gain­ing au­di­ences. In the old days, the news me­dia had a win­now­ing ef­fect that pre­vented crack­pots and peo­ple with no chance from get­ting any trac­tion. There’s a study in the Jour­nal of Public Eco­nomics that sug­gests it’s pos­si­ble to track Fox’s ef­fect on vot­ers.

Fox had to go through a long process of get­ting [lo­cal] ca­ble sys­tems to carry Fox News. You can study when a par­tic­u­lar ca­ble sys­tem made Fox avail­able, by the ex­act date, and you can look at vot­ing data be­fore and af­ter by con­gres­sional dis­trict. It’s a won­der­ful data source for all kinds of phe­nom­ena. You can see it in­creased votes for Repub­li­can can­di­dates and for Repub-

li­can poli­cies in Congress. You used the term “self-brain­wash­ing” to de­scribe how the bub­ble af­fects pol­i­cy­mak­ing.

[Here are] two ex­am­ples: One is Benghazi, an is­sue about which no­body out­side the Fox uni­verse cares. Yet [con­gres­sional] Repub­li­cans keep hold­ing one in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter an­other, and when their in­ves­ti­ga­tion proves there’s noth­ing wrong, they ig­nore it and start a new in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The other is the ob­ses­sion with Oba­macare. Fox has given fo­rums to Oba­macare’s crit­ics to a far greater ex­tent than other me­dia.

Congress is up to, what, 60 votes to re­peal this thing? Now it looks like the dog may have caught the bus; if the Supreme Court gives the Repub­li­cans what they want, this could be a com­plete dis­as­ter for them. To what ex­tent has Pres­i­dent Obama him­self be­come the fuel for con­ser­va­tive ob­ses­sions?

I hate to play up the race an­gle, but I don’t see how you can avoid it. Repub­li­can con­ser­va­tives deny Obama’s le­git­i­macy: That’s the ba­sis for this thing about his birth cer­tifi­cate. In a poll af­ter the 2012 elec­tion, 58% of Repub­li­cans said the elec­tion was stolen. I don’t want to make too much of a so­ci­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ment, but this does date back his­tor­i­cally to the de­nial of hu­man­ity to slaves be­cause the only way whites could ra­tio­nal­ize treat­ing them as slaves was to deny they’re ac­tual hu­man be­ings. What other changes have Fox wrought on the GOP ?

The key thing is the devel­op­ment of the tea party in 2009, which I don’t re­ally view as con­ser­va­tive but as pop­ulist. A mem- ber of Congress who may be gen­uinely mod­er­ate doesn’t dare vote [that way] for fear he will be at­tacked [from the right]; they have no choice but to do what the tea party wants. [They] need a real­time fix on what is­sues an­i­mate the tea party. Where are you go­ing to get that? Very easy — you turn on Fox News. Do Democrats have a bub­ble too?

There are peo­ple who only watch MSNBC or [lis­ten to] Stephanie Miller, but that’s a very small num­ber com­pared to peo­ple [in the bub­ble] on the right. Pew [Re­search Cen­ter] polling data [shows] Democrats get their news from more var­ied sources. A lot of the Demo­cratic coali­tion are not re­ally lib­eral, they’re good-gov­ern­ment peo­ple, they want gov­ern­ment to work; whereas vast num­bers of Repub­li­cans are es­sen­tially op­er­a­tional an­ar­chists — they hate gov­ern­ment, they use ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to de­stroy gov­ern­ment, be­cause in their warped view that is per se good.

[In the con­ser­va­tive bub­ble] you never find any­one will­ing to say gov­ern­ment does some­thing right un­less you’re talk­ing about killing Mus­lims. You only hear about gov­ern­ment screw-ups; you never hear about cor­po­rate screw-ups. So there’s an im­bal­ance that gets back to echocham­ber brain­wash­ing. When gov­ern­ment does some­thing right, it’s sim­ply not re­ported; that leads peo­ple to think, we might as well get rid of gov­ern­ment or slash it willy-nilly.

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