A Toxic Brew of Media Polarization, Extremism and Untruthful Advocacy

As Republican lawmakers in Congress have recently once again sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz has highlighted one of the two apparent rationales for their effort to deprive an estimated 32 million Americans of health insurance coverage by 2026 and to remove their protection against non-coverage as a result of pre-existing conditions:

Americans who feared that Barack Obama would come for their guns are happy that Donald Trump is coming for their health care, a new report finds. In interviews conducted across the country, people expressed satisfaction that, by taking away their ability to see a doctor rather than their ability to shoot people, the federal government ‘finally has its priorities straight.’ ‘I couldn’t get a night’s sleep, worrying about Obama taking away my guns,’ Carol Foyler, a gun owner from Kentucky, said. ‘Now that we have a President who’s just taking away my family’s health care, I can breathe easier.[1]

To appreciate the irony to which Borowitz is pointing, one must first understand that the Obama administration never undertook an effort to “come for Americans’ guns.”[2] Instead, in the aftermath of several mass shootings involving semi-automatic weapons, it sought to ban such guns for public sale and to develop more adequate registration and licensure requirements generally to ensure that those who had violent criminal records or past histories of mental illness could not readily purchase firearms. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Republican Party (GOP) teamed to argue that any such effort was undue and threatened hunters’ rights and would result in the action Borowitz here satirizes. It did not matter that the Obama administration never contemplated such a stance: many gun owners were nonetheless convinced that it must be true by the NRA and the GOP’s persistent advocacy of their demagogic narrative. Moreover, many, as Borowitz suggests, still believe that such was true. Meanwhile, irrespective of the NRA and Republican Party manufactured outrage concerning “gun confiscation” stoked by false absolutist ideology and deceitful “Chicken Little” claims, it remains relatively easy for deranged individuals to obtain dangerous weapons in the United States. America’s dubious distinction as among the most violent nations in the world continues unabated and our number of mass shooting events stands alone, an ongoing tragedy that speaks for itself.

The deeper point here concerns the storyline that has sustained this situation, promulgated on the basis of falsehood and ideology, and often, other unstated motives. The NRA has consistently attacked any additional licensure requirement for assault-style weapons as a complete undermining of the Second Amendment, a dishonest and untenable position, and one that is prima facie unreasonable. Indeed, the Association’s arguments depend on the successful propagation of a deceptive account to prove sustainable. Still, it must be said that such a stance supports the nation’s firearms industry neatly, an industry which presently sells thousands of semi-automatic weapons annually at a handsome profit.

If this sort of policy and political advocacy has consistently been true of regulation of assault-type guns, which, notably, are not used in hunting, the supposed raison d’etre of the NRA, it has also been true of the Republican narrative concerning health care insurance provision for millions of Americans. For some seven years, Republican Party leaders and candidates have called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, arguing, among many other things, that its requirement that individuals obtain health insurance unduly deprives Americans of their ability to choose otherwise.

Likewise, they have contended that the Act costs its subscribers much more than insurance did previously. The problem with these contentions is that, however appealing to individualist ideologues, they are untrue or utterly nonsensical. A freedom to be deprived of health care when you need it is no freedom at all, and GOP representatives have never been able to produce evidence that the Act is a costly malignancy in such terms. The ACA has instead, without arguing it is perfect, provided millions of people health insurance who would otherwise not have secured it.

Nevertheless, according to various analysts and journalists, none of this matters to Trump and GOP Hill leaders today as they pursue the Act’s repeal once more, for three basic reasons. First, Trump is hungry for something that he can call a “win,” to share with his ardent base of supporters, irrespective of the fact that such a false and demagogic “victory” would deprive millions of those cheering him of their health care coverage.[3]  He is likely aware of that paradox, but apparently believes he can blame others for the result, should it come to pass. Meanwhile, GOP leaders are in a similar box of their own making. Having maintained for years that providing access to health care to millions of Americans is a travesty, and then failing, once in power, to repeal that imagined abomination, they now find themselves under sharp criticism by their devotees and donors who have demanded “evidence” that they can deliver on their promises.[4] In short, GOP leaders today are arguing they must take this action to take it and for no other reasoned purpose.[5]

Meanwhile, too, a share of their criticism has never been about the supposed freedom of individual Americans to risk sickness or death due to a lack of health insurance, if they so choose. Instead, to the extent they have been unable to repeal the ACA to date, Republican leaders are violating a pledge to a wealthy constituency to eliminate the tax that many are paying to support the law. More, they are failing to adhere to their ideological faith that reductions in taxes (of any sort) for the most-wealthy will free those individuals to use those funds to provide jobs (a proposition, interestingly, for which there is little evidence during the last several decades the GOP has embraced it most ardently).

All of these policy advocacy machinations and narrative claims exist in a rapidly evolving media/information environment in which those wishing to believe the sort of counter factual narratives offered by the NRA or the GOP (or other political actors, to be sure) can do so free of criticism by cocooning in news and social media outlets that support their concocted outrage about concerns that never existed in fact. In a recent thoughtful overview of careful analyses of the role of media sources in the ongoing polarization of the country’s citizenry, Isabel Sawhill and Eleanor Krause of the Urban Institute observed that the “Fox News Effect” charted by researchers, may have been even larger in the 2016 election than in the four previous national contests:

Martin and Yurujoglu’s findings are striking simply because of the sheer magnitude of this ‘Fox News effect.’ Indeed, the network may have played an even larger role in the 2016 presidential election, but no one has yet investigated the causal relationship. According to researchers at Pew, Fox News was the main source of election news for 40 percent of Trump voters, while there was no equivalently dominant source of coverage among Clinton supporters—18 percent of Clinton voters pointed to CNN as their main source of coverage, followed by MSNBC (9 percent), Facebook (8 percent), and local television networks (8 percent). If the growing influence documented by Martin and Yurujoglu continued through the most recent election cycle, the ‘Fox News effect’ might have moved an election-changing portion of the electorate in Trump’s favor.[6]

According to the Urban Institute’s well-respected scholars, the implications of this fact, in which Americans of varying partisan dispositions obtain their information from widely disparate sources, and in the case of “Fox News,” one that routinely adopts GOP talking points as a filter for its reporting and talk/opinion shows, are growing polarization and ironically, an increasing role for broadcast media in that process:

If some of these platforms meaningfully influence consumers’ political beliefs, our nation’s political divide will almost certainly grow worse. When individuals select media sources based on demographic and political factors and these sources then amplify or strengthen an individual’s political views, the echo chamber becomes a feedback loop for increasingly intractable political polarization.[7]

Finally, Sawhill and Krause conclude, “Should big money or rising concentration begin

to play an even bigger role in cable programming, control of the media could become the determining factor in electoral success.”[8] Taken together these analyses and the argument sketched here suggest several disturbing trends for U.S. policy politics:

  • the Republican Party’s adoption of ever more extremist variants of anti-governance and individualistic ideology and, increasingly, for the sake of doing so
  • the continued polarization, wrought by demographic canalization and narrow casting, of the media landscape
  • the GOP’s willingness to craft and press policy narratives and electoral claims divorced from fact and reality, even when those redound against the interests of the citizens drawn to support them on the basis of the values they are presented as embodying.

These developments appear to be creating a politics characterized by ever more brazen falsehoods predicated on the absolutization of ideological or advocacy claims to secure voter mobilization. These efforts feed polarization, with GOP Party narrative and related broadcast and social media outlets each encouraging extremism. The result, de facto, constitutes a continuing attack on prudential democratic deliberation of different points-of-view in favor of a willingness to valorize completely and, more and more often, false, policy narratives and claims. In turn, this cycle continuously raises levels of partisan division. These have only been made more intemperate by the coarse attacks on democratic norms and specific groups in which President Trump has engaged almost daily while in office and, prior to his election, during his campaign.

One may hope that the same voices that have thus far prevented GOP efforts to remove access to health care for an estimated 32 million Americans by 2026 and to blame those so affected for their inability to address their health care needs alone, will be able to stop like efforts in other policy domains, constructed on similar dangerous foundations. One may also hope that those citizens drawn to this parlous and perilous rhetoric will begin to reevaluate their stance and begin to call for a more grounded, reasoned and truthful policy dialogue. Whatever else may be said, present trends cannot be allowed to deepen if the nation is to emerge from this poisonous period of mutually reinforcing extremist, often simply untruthful advocacy with any remaining capacity to engage in something resembling prudential democratic politics.

 

Notes

[1] Borowitz, Andy, “People who Feared Obama Would Take their Guns Happy To Have Trump Take their Health Care,” The Borowitz Report-The New Yorker, September 21, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/people-who-feared-obama-would-take-their-guns-happy-to-have-trump-take-their-health-care Accessed, September 21, 2017.

[2] Luckerson, Victor. “Read Barack Obama’s Speech on New Gun Control Measures,” Time, January 5, 2016, http://time.com/4168056/obama-gun-control-speech-transcript/ Accessed September 23, 2017.

[3] Lucey, Catherine, “Trump Trying to Turn Around GOP Holdouts on Health Bill,” US News and World Report, September 23, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2017-09-23/mccain-doesnt-back-gop-health-care-bill-drawing-trump-ire Accessed September 23, 2017.

[4] Hulse, Carl, Behind New Obamacare Repeal Vote: ‘Furious’ GOP Donors,” The New York Times, September 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/us/politics/republican-donors-obamacare-repeal.html?mcubz=1 Accessed September 22, 2017.

[5] Hulse, Carl. “Behind New Obamacare Repeal Vote.”

[6] Sawhill, Isabel and Eleanor Krause, “Gauging the role of Fox News in our electoral divide,” Brookings Institution Briefs, September 20, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/gauging-the-role-of-fox-news-in-our-electoral-divide/?utm_campaign=Brookings%20Brief&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=56637974 Accessed September 20, 2017.

[7] Sawhill and Krause, “Gauging the role of Fox News.”

[8] Sawhill and Krause, “Gauging the role of Fox News.”