And here is one liberal who doesn't believe that everything that comes out of the unregulated free market is good culturally. For instance, I think that right wing talk radio is the biggest cultural pollutant in our society. I can't conceive of anything more pernicious than hours and hours of eliminationist rhetoric, lies and propaganda being pumped into people's cars, offices and homes throughout the country. Somehow, I just can't get as worked up about fictional cable television shows that feature nudity and profanity when real live Americans spend the day listening to people talk about me in ways that sound an awful lot like they'd like to kill me.
That reminds me of something I've been meaning to talk about, namely, the effects of under-the-radar propaganda. Limbaugh's fans do not consider him the representation of the Republican party. In fact, every single one of my friends who listen to Rush are quick to tell me how non-doctrinaire, how willing to criticize the right, he is. It's part of his schtick, an honest guy telling it like it is. But that's just the thing, having his vile commentary beamed into your home and your car and your office day after day is going to leave you a raving right-winger at the very same time you think you're becoming independent. It'll effectively wed you to a party by shaping your ideology and the way you perceive politics. As David Neiwert wrote (in a post I can't seem to find), Rush and his ilk are some of the only folks on air in rural areas. So these farmers and laborers driving long distances for this or that really have nothing else to tune into on the AM. No wonder Democrats are getting stomped in rural areas! The whole dynamic reminds me of something I read in Which Side Are You On?:
We have lost our sense of what this old CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations, later to merge with the AFL, key in the development of organized labor] culture was like.We listen to old radio shows like Fibber McGee and Molly, and think, "How simple and sweet people used to be." But then read the back issues of UMW Journal [United Mineworkers Journal]...It's pretty strong stuff. Crude, vulgar cartoons about Wall Street, the bosses, etc. It's the crudest, most vulgar propaganda you could ever see in the free world, and it was coming into people's houses, with their favorite radio shows, and apparently this was quite routine. My God, no wonder they were voting for Democrats. If you read the old Journals, you'll be surprised that's all they did.
You don't want to underestimate the number of people being shaped by this sort of under-the-radar propaganda. That's why, in the 40's, when Republicans finally recaptured Congress and the CIO was planning a massive organizing drive in the South, Taft-Hartley (the union-busting bill) became their primary concern. If the CIO had been allowed to become a dominant force in American life, they would have created a working class actively, implacably hostile to the Republican party. But my point here isn't a history lesson. Instead, it's that partisan affiliations are not made and remade every four years. In fact, they're only partially a product of above-the-board media, what with its anodyne portrayals of issues and its deadening lists of quotes. Firm polarization comes from continuing exposure to various forms of (what most would consider) vicious propaganda, whether its anti-boss labor literature or anti-liberal talk radio. It's not that you hear a single argument and click into your brand new political identity, but that the sustained presence of these forms of media begin to color your perception of their targets, robbing them of their humanity and building enough mistrust that no argument they make will sway you, as they're saddled with an a priori lack of credibility.
We are losing the war, there. We simply don't have outlets coloring the subconscious perceptions of voters. While Rush beams into 20 million ears and his cadre of imitators scream into a few million more, we're no longer sending out vicious labor literature, or indeed any sort of opinionated and consistent attack propaganda. That's a large part of the reason that our historical advantages in Party ID are dropping -- Republican affiliates are doing to us what Democratic proxies once did to them. True, blogs are stepping in here to further polarize their readers, and Democrats certainly have strength there, but we're basically an echo-chamber for preexisting partisans, not a converting ground for the previously apathetic. This is why I find it hard to get worked up over something stupid Peter Beinart or David Brook said in the New York Times -- that's not where it matters (though, to be clear, I wish they wouldn't say stupid things). The really important fights -- the ones aimed at converting people's guts rather than heads, go on beneath the surface, because the visceral tactics and arguments used would be considered entirely too vicious for polite society. And much more than in the mainstream media, that's where we're losing our votes.
Update: I was talking about this with a friend recently and he mentioned that John Judis's the Paradox of American Democracy covered much the same ground. Is that true? And should I read it?