Bill Schneider at Reuters wrote a piece this week that garnered some attention claiming that the GOP primary disaster is the fault of the media. His argument goes that modern television journalism has created a reality show environment where the most outrageous hucksters perform the best and where quality candidates and policy positions are lost in the undertow. It’s a sentiment shared by many political observers. Schneider writes:
In a contest controlled by the media, personality beats policy. Candidates with colorful and attention-grabbing personalities have the advantage. Even candidates with abrasive personalities, like Donald Trump. And goofy personalities, like Ben Carson.
The process also rewards candidates with well-honed debating skills like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Even though debating skill may not be an essential quality of a great president. Things like a solid record of achievement, practical ideas and endorsements by one’s peers get discounted in today’s media-driven process. Bush’s new slogan – “Jeb Can Fix It” — does not seem to be catapulting him into the lead.
With all due respect, this argument is more than a little bit of wishful thinking. People who make this claim have an idea in their heads of what they think politics should be: a series of competing resumes and white paper policy proposals soberly adjudicated by voters who furrow their brows at community forums. It’s a quirk of certain types of journalists, good government advocates and centrist think tank gurus to believe this about elections, and to favor uninspiring candidates.
But that’s frankly not how major elections work, nor how they have ever worked at least since the advent of television.
There’s nothing different in the press environment in 2015 than there was in 2011. This supposed media-driven reality TV campaign hasn’t seemed to turn the Democratic primary into a circus–rather, the Democratic primary has so far been conducted mostly with grace and the seriousness the issues deserve, in spite of a media that seems far more concerned with Clinton’s emails and the precise definition of socialism, than in the actual policy problems the country faces.
The difference this year isn’t the media. It’s the GOP base. Something has happened over the last 15 years in the American conservative psyche that most journalists and centrist political observers don’t want to admit. Conservatives are locked in an increasingly hostile defensive crouch against reality and demographic trends. Supply-side economics, once unquestioned in its Reagan ascendancy, has been shown to be a failure on multiple levels. President George W. Bush’s signature war in Iraq turned out to be a bungled disaster. Secularism is on the rise, gays can legally get married, and America is fast becoming a minority-majority nation. Climate change and wealth inequality are the two most obvious public policy problems, neither of which has even the pretense of a credible conservative solution. This, combined with the election of the first African-American president, has had a debilitating effect on the conservative psyche, which now sees itself under assault from all directions.
Conservatives have responded by creating their own alternative reality in which rejection of basic facts and decency in the service of ideology is a badge of merit and tribal loyalty. That has created an environment in which the most popular voices tend to be the most aggressive and outlandish.
In this context, the fact that Trump, Carson and Cruz have a stranglehold on the GOP presidential race has almost nothing to do with the media and everything to do with the state of the GOP base.
That the turn toward extremism seems so sudden is a mere accident of history. In 2004 George Bush rode to a narrow victory on the strength of a still-terrified American public. 2006 saw Republicans get shellacked across the board, and the financial crisis took the wind out of GOP sails and made a 2008 Democratic victory almost certain. Even then, the trend was apparent when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate to wild applause, and then she overshadowed him among conservatives and became the better-loved figure. Barack Obama’s election was followed by a grandiose temper tantrum over a Heritage Foundation, Mitt Romney-inspired healthcare law, leading to a Tea Party insurgency that provided huge gains to Republicans in 2010 and demonstrated where the true power in the Party lay.
That Mitt Romney became the nominee in 2012 was almost a fluke: for months the collection of anti-establishment candidates had more support then Romney, and toward the end Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum of all people combined for greater support than Romney achieved. Romney only won because the real GOP base split its vote. And the rest is recent history.
This is what the GOP base really is and what it has become. The media has little to do with it, except insofar as it has hidden and failed to report the Republican Party’s unilateral march toward reality-free extremism.