Why Conservative Radio and TV Thrives and Others Don’t
It’s taken me a few swings to get this article written. It’s sort of a weird topic, one that was started by an online discussion I was following for a bit. The simple question is this: Why does conservative talk radio, “news”, and Youtube video creators thrive, while others in the political space seem not to be able to get traction. The failure of Al Franken’s Air America progressive radio network is a perfect example of the more liberal or middle of the road talk radio just not getting traction and dying off. The only real exception at this point is MSNBC. However, that exception case actually seems to rely on some of thing things propping up conservative media.
A little history. Talk radio has been around forever, but the current form comes from the 1987 repeal of the fairness doctrine. Before this point, radio (and TV) station were required to offer equal airtime or provide equal coverage to all sides of a subject, especially in editorial (aka, opinion based) content. With that repealed, stations were more able to provide a more narrow range of opinions and focus in on certain groups and demographics. While there have been stations on both sides of the issue, the biggest players coming out of that era have been mostly conservative, including people like Rush Limbaugh, who to this day has a weekly audience of at least 13 million listeners. For the most part, there were enough syndicated and local conservative talk radio voices to allow station to basically go “all conservative radio”, providing a day long reinforcement of the messages and hot topics that they pushed. For the most part, there were rarely enough liberal leaning talk shows to make a station full time liberal, so the competition for conservative talk radio has been a much more middle group approach that doesn’t push as much of an agenda. When bad news or a story unfavorable to conservatives comes up, they either ignore it entirely (like it never happened), ridicule the source, or find some small hitch in the story to make it appear to be false. In many ways, this is the precursor to the current “fake news” concept pushed by President Trump.
Limbaugh has sort of set the standard for one sided hatchet job radio. He’s aggressively conservative, often angry, and generally pushes only material that furthers a conservative agenda and a conservative government. Others followed, well known names such as Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity have all hosted popular conservative talk radio programs. They all follow a similar style, a combination of carefully selected viewpoints, mockery of liberal causes and actions, and a selection of what are commonly called “dog whistle politics” to active a user base and energize them to the given message.
Limbaugh listeners provide a sort of interesting way to see who listened and how they approach things. Callers refer to themselves as “Dittoheads”, essentially saying “ditto to what the last caller said”. It’s at that moment that you can start to understand how the whole thing becomes a bit of an echo chamber, with each caller and each voice reinforcing the words of the previous ones. It feeds back into the playing down of unfavorable stories, feeds conspiracy theories, and generally reiterating the same lines over and over again. It’s this happiness with being part of a group who keeps telling themselves that they are right that makes it both powerful and scary. 9/11 attacks also bolstered all of this, pushing a story line of the world being “out to get us, out to kill the American way”, which bolstered Conservative radio, Fox News on TV, and such.
Interestingly, while the internet is suppose to make it easy for all points of view to be represented, it’s clear that conservatives have basically taken the lead in social media, streaming video, you tube, twitter, and Facebook. While they complain about liberal bias, the reality is the most strident voices online are people like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Mark Dice (who blocked me on twitter for point out he’s biased as they come), and many others. The left has a few voices, but generally not a full on assault.
This of course brings us back to the question, why does this work for conservative radio and TV, but generally not for more left of center groups? I have a couple of theories, and some of them sound a little weird. But bare with me, because I think I am on to something.
Conservatives are for the most part Christians. According to this Pew Institute Study, over 90% of conservatives believe in god absolutely (78%) and fairly certain (14%), and 70% of them think that religion is important in life. By comparison, liberals are 45% certain and 24% fairly certain, and only 36% think that religion is important in life. That difference is what got me thinking. You have to remember that religion is not based on absolute certainty, but rather on faith. You believe in God, but there is no actual absolute proof. You have to believe. You have to take the words of the bible, the pastor, priest, or other religious leader as the “words of god” even though you have never truly had god say anything. Many find comfort not only in God, but in being part of a bigger group who believe. That is most obvious in the born again and evangelical christians, the mega churches, and the shared experience of religion. For it all to work, you have to accept one side and deny others, even if the other side has strong proof. True Christians believe that the earth (and everything else) was created by God in 6 days backed by nothing more than the story in the bible, while none believers lean much more towards evolution, with all of the fossils, proof, history, and the like. There is a strong case for evolution, but for true believers, it’s heresy. They believe they are right, and every Sunday they go to church, surrounded by others who have the same feelings and same convictions – and are told they are the only ones who will make it to heaven because they are right.
(Side note: Pretty much all religions work in the same manner. The US happens to be a mostly Christian society, so they terms bible, god, creation, and what not are in reference to what they believe.)
I think that conservative talk radio (and TV) may have tapped into that somewhat accidentally to start with, and with more intent over time. These are people who are use to believing things that not only cannot be proven, but that fly in the face of actual physical proofs. Essentially, they believe in what Rush says, even if it’s wrong, because it’s what they want to believe. The constant reinforcement, both every time they listen to his show as well as from other shows, their close friends, etc, makes it almost impossible for them to believe anything else. They are essentially happy in this odd sort of denial of the real world, provided that everyone around them feels the same. Conservatives generally have clustering of opinions, where large groups gel around certain issues and points of view, no matter what. Play to them, and they are yours. Everyone one else is uninformed, stupid, or a “libtard”. There is also a great tolerance for extreme views, which is why everyone from conspiracy theorists to outright racists seem to fit under the Conservative Republican tent. IIt’s also why Trump’s cries of “Fake News!” work well with this group.
It’s weird to think of it like that, but I realized that it’s the most logical explanation.
The proof really comes from the other side of the discussion. Left leaning. progressives, and Liberals tend to be very diverse groups, with diverse opinions. At one end of the scale you have extreme socialists, anti-poverty, anti-racist, and yes, even the mythical AntiFa (mostly a conservative creation, but I digress), and then a huge space of varied views, opinions and approaches. It’s why the Democratic party tends to have very diverse political candidates, and sometimes have a hard time uniting the base, because there is no real base per se. It’s the reason liberal or progressive talk radio doesn’t generally do well, because the people listening aren’t dittoheads, and won’t all automatically agree on every topic. They don’t want to be told what to think, they form their own opinions.
So, some might ask, what about MSNBC? Well, I think of them as the exception that proves the rule. MSNBC (particularly Rachel Maddow) has done a good job in uniting the left and center groups by playing the card of the single common enemy, Donald Trump. Trump has been a godsend for Liberal talk, his constant changing stories, lies, dishonest statements and the cries of “Fake News” have united people who are otherwise to diverse to reach critical mass. With more of the centrists lining up against Trump (his approval ratings are as low as 35% at this point, much lower than his popular vote take), MSNBC has jumped in and taken charge.
In the end, religion may have a bigger impact on US politics than anyone imagines. Not because of religious ideals or approaches, but rather how easily the flock are turned into sheep.