The Fox News Effect?

Republicans are more partisan---and distrustful of government---than Democrats.

President Donald J. Trump participates in a FOX News Channel virtual town hall entitled America Together: Returning to Work, with co-moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum live from the Lincoln Memorial Sunday, May 3, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
President Donald J. Trump participates in a FOX News Channel virtual town hall entitled America Together: Returning to Work, with co-moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum live from the Lincoln Memorial Sunday, May 3, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

In his continuing series on how Rupert Murdock has destroyed the country, Kevin Drum points to a “new study” (it’s from 2018, which is newish at least) showing that Republican trust in government institutions fluctuates much more depending on the party of the President than is true of Democrats:

Drum, reasonably enough, sees this as evidence that Republicans are more partisan than Democrats. Here’s what the study authors say:

When political polarization is high, it may be assumed that citizens will trust the government more when the chief executive shares their own political views. However, evidence is accumulating that important asymmetries may exist between liberals and conservatives (or Democrats and Republicans). We hypothesized that an asymmetry may exist when it comes to individuals’ willingness to trust the government when it is led by the “other side.” In an extensive analysis of several major datasets (including ANES and GSS) over a period of five decades, we find that in the United States, conservatives trust the government more than liberals when the president in office shares their own ideology. Furthermore, liberals are more willing to grant legitimacy to democratic governments led by conservatives than vice versa. A similar asymmetry applies to Republicans compared with Democrats. We discuss implications of this asymmetrical “president-in-power” effect for democratic functioning.

Pointing to this trend graph

Drum concludes,

This is yet another demonstration of the malignant effect of Fox News. Before 2000, Republicans were somewhat more partisan than Democrats in their trust of government. After 2000 they went absolutely bonkers. This is what Rupert Murdoch has done to us.

While we agree on the malignant effect of Fox News, I’m not sure the graph bolsters our suspicion. Granting that the Y axis is really oddly drawn, making interpolation challenging, we saw really wild divergences well before Fox News came online in 1996, most notably the reaction to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.

The most interesting thing to me in that second graph is that Republican confidence in government began to plummet rather early in the Bush 43 administration. Yes, it went even further down under Obama. And we don’t have the data for the Trump administration. My guess is that it rebounded but probably no more than to what it was midway through the Bush era.

Now, that may well be a function of Fox News and the rest of the right-wing infotainment complex. But it actually goes beyond partisanship to a fundamental distrust in our institutions.

I had vaguely remembered that the Tea Party movement, which I see as the point where the Republican Party of old rapidly began turning into the party of Trump, began in response to Bush’s decision to issue massive bailouts after the Lehman Brothers collapse, not the inauguration of Barack Obama. It was a sign that the working class base had finally come to grips with the GOP’s aversion to Big Government was more a talking point than a policy stance. But, if this data is accurate, that realization was actually happening much earlier.

FILED UNDER: Government, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    I always thought that Patrick Buchanan’s “peasants with pitchforks” speech in 1992 was one of the heralds of the change.

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  2. Jen says:

    It started with Reagan, IMHO. His “scariest words are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’,” was a clarion call to Republicans everywhere that government wasn’t just ineffective, it was malignant.

    It’s simply untrue. There are many, many things that ONLY government can accomplish, and Reagan damn well knew that. As did his VP, George H.W. Bush, and many, many other Republicans who had spent careers in government knowing just how much can be accomplished if they compromise.

    It was the sneering and hypocritical Newt Gingrich who took this nasty attitude and turned it into a litmus test, however.

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  3. Kylopod says:

    This is yet another demonstration of the malignant effect of Fox News. Before 2000, Republicans were somewhat more partisan than Democrats in their trust of government. After 2000 they went absolutely bonkers. This is what Rupert Murdoch has done to us.

    I should add that Fox News itself became increasingly radical over time. There was a period in which it was widely viewed as a legitimate news service with a conservative slant. It was during the Obama years when it began to dive down the conspiracy rabbit hole, and to remove whatever vestiges it may have still had of pretending to be balanced (it was in January 2009 when Hannity & Colmes became simply Hannity). A book I read about the rise of the alt right made me realize that one thing which kept them relatively stable for a while was, ironically, their devotion to Bush while he was president. The far right never liked Bush–they viewed him as responsible for 9/11, they didn’t like his foreign-policy adventurism, and they hated his views on immigration. This outlook would gain increasing currency on Fox as Bush entered the rearview mirror and the Kenyan Socialist took over.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: @Jen: One can point to Goldwater in 1964, although that was a different and aberrational brand, or Nixon and the Southern Strategy. But I do see the Tea Party as a more radical departure.

    @Kylopod: Yes, absolutely. The Fox News of Brit Hume and Tony Snow is not what it is today.

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think what we’re seeing is the long, slow collapse not just of the Republican Party, but of American conservatism. Conservative ideology has been shredded. Its core beliefs are demonstrable nonsense. Have American conservatives ever been right about anything?

    Over time the intellectual collapse of conservatism has been like watching the veneer peel from an old desk, revealing termites beneath. Now the pretense of normalcy is gone entirely as an openly white supremacist and fascistic party emerges. But it was always there. Smart fellows told themselves they were students of this or that thinker, followers of this or that theory, but they were fooling themselves, quite like the Left-wing intellectuals of the 1930’s tried desperately to justify Stalinism. For years conservative ‘intellectuals’ sprayed air freshener over a corpse and hoped no one would notice the stench of racism, misogyny, nativism, unbridled greed, carefully cultivated ignorance and love of violence. Now conservatives have descended into (poorly-written) fantasy and performative madness.

    Fox News has been a big part of this. They’ve done terrible harm to this country, to human liberty, to fundamental decency. But I think if you could watch Fox and the GOP and the various right-wing ‘think’ tanks in a time-lapse video you’d see the whole fraudulent enterprise spiraling down together.

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  6. mattbernius says:

    @Jen:

    It started with Reagan, IMHO. His “scariest words are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’,” was a clarion call to Republicans everywhere that government wasn’t just ineffective, it was malignant.

    While I agree that Reagan was a critical step in this process, I’m not sure we can say that this really had a specific originating point. I also think we need to look to rhetoric for the cause. Likewise, I think there’s a lot more going on here than just economics (or dare I say, “economic anxiety”).

    So here’s my theory: I think a lot of this movement starts with a reaction to the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Ed, the various Voting and Civil Rights acts, and, most importantly, their enforcement. That is one of the first major examples of the government taking significant steps against the white Majority since the end of reconstruction. And seeing Federal Forces being used against the will of white citizens. The Southern Strategy helped pull those people distrustful of government into Republican “Big Tent.”

    Then there is Vietnam, and the perceived failure of the US Military and its “failing” our troops. Then Watergate and stagflation and other crisis (real and perceived) under Carter. All of that paved the way for Reagan’s message (not to mention shaped a number of key influences like Grover Norquest and the neocon movement).

    And while FoxNews only comes online in 1996, Right Wing radio media had been national and paving the way for it from the late 80’s on. And that’s a really critical unifying effect (including the early embrace that (1) the government was against you and (2) it was promoting the needs of minorities, LGBTQ, feminists above yours).

    Then there are the other governmental forces. And the continued reactionary whitening of the Republican party.

    Which also gets to:

    I had vaguely remembered that the Tea Party movement, which I see as the point where the Republican Party of old rapidly began turning into the party of Trump, began in response to Bush’s decision to issue massive bailouts after the Lehman Brothers collapse, not the inauguration of Barack Obama. It was a sign that the working class base had finally come to grips with the GOP’s aversion to Big Government was more a talking point than a policy stance.

    Again, I don’t believe in either/or binary thinking, but I really resist the idea that the Tea Party comes down simply to economics or a rejection of Big Government. Otherwise, we should be seeing a resurgence of the Tea Party right now given what Biden is proposing is so much more sweeping than anything Bush and Obama did*. I don’t think we can account for the Tea Party’s fast formation without accounting for the race factor as well (which has also come to increasingly define the current Republican party and its overarching politics).

    * – I will say that one possible explanation for this is there is official no daylight between the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party (which really shows how it never was a truly a politically indepentand movement and really always was just embarrassed Republicans looking to rebrand without really changing the way they vote).

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  7. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    The Fox News of Brit Hume and Tony Snow is not what it is today.

    Let’s face it, Brit Hume of 2021 isn’t Brit Hume of 1996, as noted by his recent anti-Vax stance and his defense of not only Tucker Carlson “just asking questions” but also his constant (dangerous) promotion of shill Alex Berenson.

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  8. Kylopod says:

    @mattbernius:

    Let’s face it, Brit Hume of 2021 isn’t Brit Hume of 1996

    When he went off the deep end is a good question–I remember him some years ago claiming that Tiger Woods’ infidelity problems were due to his not being Christian. But it’s not like I follow Hume’s proclamations daily.

    A number of previously respected journalists essentially transformed themselves into right-wing bots upon joining Fox. Hume was the ur-example of this phenomenon, and it was part of Fox’s strategy, as his esteemed reputation helped get Fox off the ground in the first place while he himself had the freedom to be as nutty as he wanted. (I remember Jon Stewart once commenting that Hume has so much gravitas he could make “I’m holding poo in my hands” sound respectable. He’s spent much of his time on Fox testing that hypothesis.)

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius:

    I will say that one possible explanation for this is there is official no daylight between the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party (which really shows how it never was a truly a politically independent movement and really always was just embarrassed Republicans looking to rebrand without really changing the way they vote).

    I think it’s more that the Tea Party simply took over the GOP. Even rock-rib conservatives like Eric Cantor, the House Whip, got primaried and ousted. It’s happening to Liz Cheney now.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius: @Kylopod: While I think it’s mostly just a function of the incentive structures at Fox, it’s worth noting that Hume is about to turn 78. Views that were perfectly sensible 25 years ago, when he debuted as the host of Fox’s flagship evening news program, are nutty now.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @mattbernius: The Tea Party is still presented as a spontaneous grass roots phenomenon. There was an element of that, but it’s growth was very much astroturfed by the Koch Bros. Where did everybody think the graphic wrapped bus came from? It was the Koch’s attempt to use the mob to make themselves the dominant faction in the GOP establishment, and it worked. Everybody seems to expect a resurgence of the TP, but what purpose would it serve? Koch and his ilk already became the GOP establishment.

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  12. drj says:

    I had vaguely remembered that the Tea Party movement, which I see as the point where the Republican Party of old rapidly began turning into the party of Trump, began in response to Bush’s decision to issue massive bailouts after the Lehman Brothers collapse, not the inauguration of Barack Obama.

    Well:

    The Tea Party movement was popularly launched following a February 19, 2009 call by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for a “tea party”. Several conservative activists agreed by conference call to coalesce against President Barack Obama’s agenda and scheduled a series of protests. Supporters of the movement subsequently had a major impact on the internal politics of the Republican Party.

    Also:

    Yesterday Rick Santelli, who reports from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade the for CNBC, unleashed a rant against Obama’s newly announced housing bailout plan, intended to help some homeowners refinance mortgages and avoid foreclosure.

    I’d say that Santelli wasn’t happy that non-whites* were getting a bail-out, too.

    * Because, IIRC, sub-prime mortgages were perceived to be mainly a racial minority thing.

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    When Limbaugh died, people were like he used to be funny long ago. But no evidence was ever presented. Why? He was never funny. The people who liked him were conservatives and then when they turned 35 or 40 or 50 they finally grew up and realized how dumb and vile Limbaugh was.

    The GOP is the same thing. Going back to Reagan the party was never better than it is now. It may have seemed better to lots of decent people who were raised to be clueless, but it just wasn’t. So Fox really can’t be blamed. It was a feedback loop that gave the party what it wanted to hear.

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  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Jen: I recently read Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, his history of the 1964 Goldwater campaign. This seems to have been the fork in the road for the Republican Party. Goldwater was the emergence into politics of the libertarian self made businessman who made that on his own and didn’t need no help from no steenking government. And typical in that he was third generation, heir to the successful businessman who built the department store chain. Goldwater lost, was crushed actually. But the ideology, and the money, remained.

  15. drj says:

    Furthermore:

    It was a sign that the working class base had finally come to grips with the GOP’s aversion to Big Government was more a talking point than a policy stance.

    Santelli, a former derivatives trader and CNBC commentator, doesn’t exactly strike me as a natural mouthpiece for the working class.

    As gVOR08 already noted, the Tea Party movement was pretty much an astroturf operation from the start, rather than an expression of genuine working-class anxiety about the size of the national debt. (Ha!)

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  16. Tim D. says:

    I definitely agree that Reagan was the accelerant. Once the GOP swore off the entire concept of “government should try to do a good job and solve problems” what was left for GOP politicians to do or strive for? They made themselves largely irrelevant in most policy conversations and all party incentives rewarded pols who were good at blocking and wrecking and tearing down. Because there was nothing they wanted to build, useful information also became irrelevant, and there was no incentive to learn things and become a policy expert.

    No doubt Democrats are just as susceptible to motivated reasoning, but the Dem focus on trying to solve problems gives them more of an incentive to be interested in accurate information. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but they are all in the more moderate wing of the Republican Party.

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  17. @Jen:

    Reagan was echoing a theme that was comment among Republican politicians since Thomas Deweu ran against FDR and Truman

  18. Kylopod says:

    @Doug Mataconis: The anti-government ideology had its roots in an alliance between the conservative movement of Buckley (who was pretty openly racist in his own right) and the Dixiecrats that was already starting to form as early as the 1950s. The two camps didn’t agree on everything–the Dixiecrats were more attached to Social Security, for one thing–but they shared a contempt for the federal government that was expressed most sharply in an opposition to federal enforcement of civil rights.

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  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @drj:

    There had been some Koch and Dick Armey astro-turfing for awhile, but it’s an odd coincidence that the pitchforks didn’t come out until Feb 2009, after the black guy got inaugurated. Glenn Beck was working for FOX News at the time and was a key draw in the march on Washington, but oddly fell suddenly out of favor when he called for a ban on the racist depictions of Obama the Tea Party crowd were displaying. My favorite quote of that period was from Louis Black, referring to leadership. IIRC, “You want to see leadership? When you can talk millions of people who don’t have a pot to piss in to march in the streets to demand rich people not be taxed..THAT’S leadership!”

    Whatever it’s intellectual underpinnings it was mostly about venting the outrage of a black man as POTUS. Except among the few Ron Paul/Koch style libertarians, abject fear of deficits all but ended when Trump was elected.

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  20. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    More evidence that what passes for “conservative” today really isn’t. The idea that conservatives no longer trust institutions and traditions turns the whole concept into an absurdity.

    Today’s “conservatives” are authoritarians and hero-worshipers, verging towards cults of personality and fascism (and some of them have already crossed that line, though I tend to agree with Mr Taylor that most Republicans are just voting for their “team”).

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  21. Jen says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Yes, but we’re talking (I think) about how this attitude has infused the entire Republican party, not as something sub-rosa but as a raison d’etre.

    Tim D. has clearly articulated what I was trying to get at–Reagan acted as an accelerant, because he was very, very good at communicating.

  22. MarkedMan says:

    Did I just completely miss this? What is GSS and ANES?

  23. Kathy says:

    For answers to what happened, when, and how, to the GOP, in a few decades someone will publish a thick history book of the period, and the conclusion will begin soemthing like “It’s complicated and there were many contributing factors.”

    Me, I lean towards the white supremacy hypothesis. Meaning the fault for the decline of the GOP lies with JFK and LBJ. 😉

  24. dazedandconfused says:

    Serendipitously, this story broke the same day this thread was posted.

    https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/06/politics/capitol-foxitis-hearing-outburst/index.html

    Alleged US Capitol rioter Anthony Antonio was hooked on Fox News and developed “Foxitis,” his lawyer said Thursday in a virtual hearing interrupted multiple times by another defendant’s profane outbursts.

    Antonio, his lawyer Joseph Hurley said, had lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic and for the next six months watched Fox News constantly. Antonio developed what his lawyer called “Foxitis” and “Foxmania,”

    Fortunately for Newscorp, Tucker Carlson has already claimed in court that no sane person would take his stuff seriously as a legal defense, so they can now assert Antonio’s condition was pre-existing.

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  25. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Democrat: I want the world to be as awesome as it can be, so that I can enjoy all of it. I will do what I can to make it so.

    Republican: I want my house to be as awesome as it can be, and I will burn down the whole world if that is what it takes.

    Straw man? Not really.

    One of my conservative friends said that he would gladly drill through a box of kittens if it meant $2.00 / gallon gas. General conservative behavior, globally, supports that ethos.

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