31 May 2011

Wages of Sin: GOP in 2012

Roger Ailes, longtime chairman of Fox News, has been getting a lot of attention lately, with a New York magazine profile and a Rolling Stone profile. This may have been inevitable: he's the in-control rich guy at the top of one of a major organization, and almost anyone in such a role is chief demon to one group or another. But there's a larger story here, in which Ailes plays only a role.

Ailes is conservative. His backstory is pretty clear about that: it's a story whose bullet points read "Nixon," "Reagan," and "Bush." But it's the last bullet point that has made him known and will ensure he is remembered: "Fox News." It's the organization that helped break the Republican Party.

From Rolling Stone:

Ailes then embarked on a purge of existing staffers at Fox News. ... “One of the problems we have to work on here together when we start this network is that most journalists are liberals,” Ailes told Moody. “And we’ve got to fight that.” Reporters understood that a right-wing bias was hard-wired into what they did from the start. “All outward appearances were that it was just like any other newsroom,” says a former anchor. “But you knew that the way to get ahead was to show your color – and that your color was red.”

Nowadays, Fox News is a powerhouse. It has pushed to the right, harder and harder, and along the way has become wildly profitable, with an $816 million profit last year. Suffering under the weight of the Bush years, the station rebounded with a series of dramatic hires. Along with Glenn Beck (the most prominent acquisition), Ailes brought in Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, John Bolton, and Mike Huckabee. Relentlessly, Fox promoted the Tea Party. And somewhere along the way, Fox News and Roger Ailes lost the thread of what they wanted.

See, the problem is that America is essentially centrist (by definition). Conservatives sometimes cite polls that list higher "conservative" self-identification when compared to "liberal" (like 37% to 22%, in this one) to argue that America is a "center-right nation." This is typically followed by explanations of the fairly even balance of the parties revolving around rampant corruption by Democrats and the bias of the media. But the plain fact is that conservatism is a clear-cut ideology, and liberalism is not. People are much more likely to identify with a set of principles like "lower taxes" and "bomb 'em" than they are to identify with the loose coalition of opposing interests that makes up the Democratic base. Still and for whatever reasons, America is pretty much half conservative and half liberal. Even the dark blue and dark red states typically only have an overbalance of five points or so.

So any political movement has to speak to most of the people. Their message has to extend beyond their base. The constant tidal effect, in both parties, is for candidates to be pulled right by the base and pulled left by the general electorate. And the two parties have their own national tidal effect - more commonly expressed as a pendulum - that goes back and forth.

With the loss in 2008 to Obama, the party base of the Republicans - as represented by Roger Ailes in person and Fox News as an organization - swung far right. Ordinarily, this wouldn't have been a problem: the laws of politics would just assert themselves and ensure that since few such radical Republicans were elected by a generally moderate public, and they would be replaced by more moderate Republicans who could actually win.

But the system broke.

Witness Sarah Palin's recent bus trip to American heritage sites.

[S]he has the ability to draw crowds — and excitement — like no one else currently in the Republican presidential field. Wherever Palin goes, crowds flock. ...

Second, Palin revels in end-running — or ignoring altogether — the mainstream media. ... Instead of communicating via the media, Palin will use her massive Internet and social media presence to push her message out.

Palin is one of a long line of unaccountable Republicans, all promoted and hyped by Fox News under Roger Ailes. They are the leaders of the party. They are increasingly communicating directly with their base, bypassing traditional media that might challenge them or their policies.

Palin, Gingrich, Santorum, Cain, Bachmann, Paul, Romney... these are almost all of the GOP candidates for 2012. And if you notice, they're all either long out of elected office (five years or more by 2012) or they're Representatives from thoroughly safe districts. In other words, they can go as far right as they want to go, with no immediate consequences. Indeed, since winning an audience is about appealing to the base - rather than winning elections, which requires appealing to the center - these "candidates" are incentivized to go as far right as they can without seeming incompetent.

It's like there's only high tide in the Republican Party these days.

Things will eventually sort themselves out, of course. People like Palin won't reign forever, even though they get to pull in big crowds and big bucks without any risk thanks to their Fox podiums and paychecks. According to these profiles, moguls like Ailes are realizing their mistake, and the upper echelons of the GOP have always seemed to hold a quiet contempt for the hoi polloi. But until they sort themselves out, the GOP is in a broken mess. That's bad for them and it's bad for the country.

Wages of sin, Mr. Ailes.

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