In a post at The Conversation, ostensibly an analysis of the influence of Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, the authors, Dominik Stekula and Erik Merkley, present a model of American politics which, if correct, has some pretty serious implications. Here’s their model:
We have studied in detail how the media covered the issue of climate change since the 1980s and how it may have played a role in polarizing the American public. The commonly observed pattern is that public opinion tends to follow, rather than lead, debate among political elites. This is of particular importance for our work.
Voters, particularly in America, tend to harbour strong positive and negative attachments to political parties. These form critical components of their social identities. When uncertain about novel political issues, like climate change, they look for signals from political elites for guidance. These signals are, more often than not, carried to them by the mass media.
In our research, we examined the political signals that were present in the coverage of climate change in major, high circulation daily newspapers, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, as well network television channels ABC, CBS and NBC, and cable news channel Fox News.
What we found is a nuanced story that sheds considerable light on why the public polarized on climate change. First, politicians became increasingly common in coverage, politicizing the issue as it grew in importance. As a result, the public has been exposed to a growing number of messages about climate change from party elites.
Second, Democratic messages have been more common in news coverage, and, unsurprisingly, consistent in a pro-climate direction. Meanwhile, Republican messages have been fewer in number, and, until the Obama presidency, ambiguous in direction. Contrary to conventional wisdom, only a small fraction of Republican messages on climate change explicitly denied the scientific consensus on climate change.
Let me restate what they’re saying. That journalists skew towards progressivism is hardly an earth-shaking revelation. It may always have been the case in the U. S. and it has certainly been the case for the last century.
It has not always been the case that academics as a group have been at the forefront of progressivism. That is a product of the 1960s. Prior to that except in a few bastions, e.g. Yale, they were notoriously conservative. Whether it is part of a Gramscian strategy or not, today progressives, overwhelmingly Democrats, have control of the opinion-making instruments in our society. That provides Democrats with the initiative.
Republicans react negatively to those initiatives because they’re Republicans if for no other reason and their personal identities, as noted by the authors, demand it. Party members are like sports fans. Cardinal fans hate the Cubs because they’re the Cubs.
And that’s the model: Democrats are the initiaters; Republicans reacters. Under that model when Democrats, supposedly responding to Republican excesses, respond with excesses of their own, they are actually responding to their own mirror image and creating a positive feedback loop. They push; Republicans push back. Keep in mind that a characteristic of positive feedback loops is that unless some governing mechanism is applied they inevitably destroy their systems.
I think that this model has some failings, specifically, it denies agency to Republicans but I think it does provide a fair-to-middling first order approximation of the political situation in the United States. The circumstances of Democrats and Republicans are not symmetrical.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, it bears some resemblance to things I’ve been saying for the last forty years and writing about here for the last fifteen. To it I would add this. IMO both progressives and conservatives have been sold a bill of goods by the Democratic and Republican Party leaderships respectively. Those leaders have no closely held beliefs other than that whatever happens they should benefit from it personally.