This morning I flagged Kevin Drum’s interesting essay, which argues that Fox News has been the most crucial factor in poisoning the American body politic over the past 25 years.
I think his argument is largely correct, although it’s much more convincing if we ascribe it to the right wing media ecosystem in general, in which Fox is the single most important component.
Here I want to add a couple of caveats, and introduce what I hope is a useful analogy to help explain how the more sophisticated purveyors of right wing politics and propaganda work.
(1) Drum claims that conspiracist modes of thinking haven’t become more prevalent in America in recent years, because we’ve always been a country prone to conspiratorial thinking (see Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style etc.), and survey data don’t indicate that conspiratorial beliefs are more prevalent now than they were a generation or two ago.
Side note: One piece of evidence for this is that a solid majority of Americans have always believed that JFK’s murder was a product of some sort of conspiracy, and a plurality have believed that this conspiracy involved the government. When a few years ago I looked at the evidence regarding the JFK assassination I came away with a very strong sense of how completely absurd these beliefs are. Oswald’s murder of Kennedy was one of the least mysterious political assassinations ever, and the idea that other people — let alone the US government — were involved is bizarre.
This can be demonstrated by pointing to just two facts: The route of the presidential motorcade was chosen by the Secret Service on Sunday, November 17th. Oswald could not have learned about it earlier than the afternoon of Tuesday the 19th, when it was published in the Dallas papers, although he probably read about it the following day in the Book Depository lunch room, where he read the day-old papers he was too cheap/poor to buy. Oswald worked in the Book Depository because his next-door neighbor in Irving had told him six weeks earlier that a job was available. In other words, it was complete happenstance that Oswald found out two or three days before the assassination that he would have a perfect opportunity to shoot Kennedy with the same rifle he had used to try to assassinate Gen. Edwin Walker the previous April. Any JFK conspiracy theory should immediately collapse when dealing with these facts, but of course these kinds of theories don’t traffic in facts or the probabilities derived from them.
Back to Drum: While conspiratorial thinking may not be more widespread among the population as a whole, the critical change in American life is that the elites of one of our two major parties have completely surrendered to that thinking, either sincerely or strategically. For example, the difference between the present moments and the 1950s is that the Red Scare of the latter era was headed up by a previously obscure and otherwise insignificant senator from the hinterlands, not by President Eisenhower. That the unquestioned leader of the Republican party is a completely out of control conspiracy monger — a fact which requires all prominent Republicans to play along with him — is very much a new development in American political history.
(2) Drum’s claim that material conditions for average Americans haven’t gotten worse over the past twenty years, because non-managerial wages have increased by four percent in real dollars, ignores that the costs of three critical goods — housing, health care, and higher education — have risen many times faster than that. Cheap TVs, computers, and mobile phones don’t really ameliorate the social effects of this development.
OK, Andre Agassi.
A few years ago, Agassi, the great 1990s tennis star, gave an interview in which he revealed the secret of his success against Boris Becker, another of the greats of that era. Agassi described how he picked up that Becker was tipping his serve, by sticking his tongue straight out when he served up the middle or to the body, and sticking it out of the corner of his mouth when he was serving wide. Now the interesting thing about this (besides illustrating what fantastic eyesight you have to have to be a great tennis player — Agassi was nearly 100 feet away from Becker when he was picking this tiny distinction up) is that Agassi very cleverly took into account that, unless he used this information strategically, it would soon become useless.
In other words, if Agassi was obviously anticipating the direction of Becker’s serve successfully every time, Becker and his coaching team would almost immediately figure out that Becker must somehow be tipping the direction of his serve, and would then analyze the match tape to figure out exactly how this was happening. So Agassi had both the game theoretical awareness and psychological discipline to take advantage of his knowledge only on particularly crucial points, in order to maximize his advantage by preserving it for the most critical moments of a match.
This is pretty much what Fox News and John Roberts do, each in their own ways. If Fox News was nothing but right wing propaganda — if its overall broadcast content was indistinguishable from a Tucker Carlson program — it would lose the strategic advantage it has by maintaining, however absurdly, its status as a legitimate news network. So it does a certain amount of straight news, and even some counter-programming to Carlson et. al., in order not to tip off either its audience or various centrist media idiots too much.
John Roberts is the judicial master of this particular game, in ways that hardly need to be elaborated on. Roberts, unlike the more fanatical of the Federalist Society strike forces, knows that you have to throw liberals a few bones once in awhile, to keep the kayfabe going. Whether he knows this consciously or not is an interesting question, but from a pragmatic perspective it doesn’t make any difference: as a functional matter, he’s Andre Agassi, keeping Boris Becker in the dark, and winning match after match as a result.