Frum on Fox

Jeet has twice written thoughtfully herein on David Frum’s recent firing by the American Enterprise Institute (see both here and here), so I’ll limit myself to pointing out a couple of related items. The first is an essay on the topic by the estimable Scott Horton, who argues that the intellectual death of the Republican Party bodes very ill for American democracy, even if it bodes well for Democratic party fortunes in the short term. The second (again via Scott Horton) is a remarkable observation that Frum made to ABC Nightline’s Terry Moran in an interview only a couple of days before his firing (it’s also viewable on YouTube here), on the GOP’s anger-driven strategy for defeating the health care bill:

Moran: “It sounds like you’re saying that the Glenn Becks, the Rush Limbaughs, hijacked the Republican party and drove it to a defeat?”

Frum: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”

It has long been a rule of thumb in the partisan media that circulation goes up when the party one aligns with is out of power, and goes down when it is in power — it is more fun, more pulse-racing, to fiercely oppose the actions of a government than to debate the banal details and necessary compromises of real policy-making. So if Fox News and right-wing talk radio will always benefit more when the Republicans are in opposition than when they’re in government, it does seem short-sighted of the GOP to rely on these deeply conflicted institutions to help bring them victory.

What does Fox care about political power? They want ad dollars, and this means viewers — and the angrier and more engaged, the better. A lost cause can be such a sweet thing.

7 thoughts on “Frum on Fox

  1. Ian,
    Your right about the incentive structure for Fox News and Limbaugh but the issue goes even deeper than that. American conservatism, at least in its dominant form, doesn’t seem so much an ideology about governance or even advancing a social/cultural agenda but rather a form of entertainment. I think this is very clear in the career of Sarah Palin, who was bored with governing Alaska and has found her true metier as Fox News personality. In a real sense, conservatives seem more interested in creating a parallel Hollywood universe of conservative celebrities who say outragious things, and not at all interested in the thankless job of governing.

  2. Rush is a different kettle of fish – he has about 30 million listeners, or the ear of roughly 10% of the US population. However, Beck and O’Reilly – the top draws at Fox News – pull in, at best approximately 3 million viewers each, or roughly 1% of the US population. I’d argue that their influence is extremely marginal at best. Half those viewers are people who would vote Republican regardless of whether or not Fox was on the air, and the other half, I’m sure, are self-proclaimed “liberals” who are “just keeping tabs on the opposition”:)

    I’m not a conservative – I love all the goodies of the free market, and am more than happy to toss “foreign allies” and “traditional values” under the bus in pursuit of those goodies. However, after reading the kind of coverage P.J. O’Rourke and Christopher Buckley have received in the book reviews sections of various periodicals and publications for about 10 + years, if I was a young conservative looking at who I’d like to model my career on, I’d take one look at O’Rouke’s sales figures and reviews, and one look at Coulter’s sales figures and reviews, and think, “F*ck being relatively nuanced, erudite, and subtle.”

  3. A very good point, Jeet. I was picking up from David Frum’s analytical assumption that the right-wing media and the GOP are two distinct entities, and it is true as you say that there is a very large middle ground in which entertainment and politics have merged in a Dr. Moreau-like way (side note: is this what John Kennedy Jr. anticipated when he launched the magazine George?). But lest we fool ourselves into thinking that extreme conservatism is nothing more than a passing circus, we should remind ourselves than men like Dick Cheney, David Addington, and John Yoo loved governing — and would certainly like to do so again one day.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. I was going to say that your juxtaposition of Ann Coulter against P.J. O’Rourke was yet another indicator of the rise of anger-driven populism, but I held myself up with the thought that figures like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin (who in the 1930s had a radio audience of over 40 million, or one-third of the U.S. population — rather beating Rush’s figures) demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach long before. Nixon too tried to co-opt both union members and the white middle class into a “New American Majority” through appeals to class resentment and fear of both the counter-culture and black crime.

    So it’s an old game, I suppose.

  5. The comparison between Father Charles Coughlin and Rush Limbaugh really puts the latter’s numbers in perspective. 10% of 300 million is still pretty impressive , but not as impressive (or rather worrisome, given what Coughlin was preaching) as getting one third of the population tuning in.

    I think the juxtaposition between Coulter and O’Rourke is also indicative of another trend – Coulter represents the (unfortunate) triumph of the echo chamber in pop culture, while O’Rourke, more so earlier in his career, had to live and work amongst, and write for, an audience that wasn’t always made up of like minded individuals.

    If someone doesn’t like Modern Manners or The National Lampoon’s High School Yearbook, it is more a matter of individual taste than personal politics. I’ve been to a few of his signings at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, and at least 50-75% of the audience would pull the lever for Democratic Candidate X over Republican Candidate Y at any given time. A Coulter signing wouldn’t be that diverse.

  6. Ummm, for years we had to listen to the right wingers bleat that left wingers were never interested in the hard business of governing, just the no-repercussion world of fault-finding and offering unworkable soundbyte solutions. Look up some of Kristol’s Bush era columns and you’ll see almost verbatim the accusation Jeet makes in his first column.
    Seems to be something that happens to the party out of power. Its foolish to speculate that their candidates don’t really want to govern.
    Nevertheless, interesting series of articles. On the one hand, AEI is a partisan institution and if they think Frum has left their ranks why shouldn’t they oust him? However, Jeet is quite right that the hypocrisy is in trying to keep up a facade as a non-partisan academic-freedom-worshipping ivory tower.
    The point here about Fox news is definitely valid. The GOP is riding a tiger. If they can manage it smartly, they can use Fox to great advantage. But we’ve already seen that they’ve been failing at this, and the dangers are apparent.

  7. I do remember those complaints, David — even going back to the Reagan era, I think, though of course as you say this is really a perennial phenomenon. I’ll credit you with coaxing a rueful laugh from me.🙂

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