Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 8 February 2021

Media radicalisation in the US and UK


Perhaps many people outside the United States do not realise how dangerous the attack on the United States Capitol was. The views from outside the Capitol, which is all the media could immediately show, seemed harmless enough. The reality was very different. Five people died, including one policeman. As one Republican described, seeing the faces of those trying to force their way through a police barricade to get into the House Chamber

“I saw this crowd of people banging on that glass screaming. Looking at their faces, it occurred to me, these aren’t protesters. These are people who want to do harm. What I saw in front of me was basically home-grown fascism, out of control.”

We now know that this was a well organised attempt to capture leading politicians. We don’t yet know, as some Democrats have alleged, whether the attackers had inside help from some Republican politicians. What we do know is that the attackers believed that the elections had been stolen from them, and these claims were repeated and acted on by a majority of the Republican politicians even after the Capitol attack. As there is not a shred of evidence that Biden’s election was illegitimate, those Republican members of Congress are guilty of supporting a democratic destroying lie that was behind the attack on Congress.

There are a minority among Republican politicians that would like to break from Trump. Liz Cheney, the House Republican Conference Chair, said

“There’s no question the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame”.

But only 10 Republicans in the House voted to impeach Trump, while the remaining 201 abstained or voted against. It is very unlikely that enough Republican senators will find him guilty in the Senate. A key question is why.

It should be in the interests of Republicans to impeach Trump, because that is the only certain way to stop him running again in 2024. Republicans shouldn’t want Trump to run again because his behaviour has put off a minority of Republican voters. That was true before the election (Trump did worse than the party in Senate and House races) and it is even more true as a result of his behaviour since. The two seats in Georgia, which looked like going Republican, voted Democrat after the events at the Capitol and Trump campaigned there. Immediately after the attack on the Capitol many Republican politicians disowned Trump.

But then the Republican base fought back. The reason why Republican politicians will not impeach him is the support he still enjoys among Republican voters, and particularly Republican activists. 64% of Republicans support Trump’s recent behaviour, and 57% want him to run again in 2024. As many Republican voters approved the attack on the Capitol as opposed it. There is a history of extreme Republican candidates defeating moderate candidates in primaries, so few Republicans want to upset the Republican base by opposing Trump, even after the attack on the Capitol. Trump himself is ready to finance campaigns against his critics in the Republican party.

So the Republican party are trapped by their pro-Trump base, and there is no obvious way out for those who oppose Trump. The Republican party therefore remains the party that does not respect democracy. A key question for the future of democracy in the United States will be whether voters understand that when they vote in two and four years time. Do they understand that a vote for the Republicans could be the last time they get a real choice in who governs them? As I argued some time ago, the only way you can rescue right wing political parties from the extreme place they have got to in the US and UK is to defeat them time and time again, or to change what is keeping extremism going.

Academic analysis of how the media influences people has normally focused on elections, and all of the studies I have seen suggest a strong influence on voters. I think their influence on party activists on the right is just as important. The traditional and respectable media in the US was clear that there was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election, and that Biden won fairly. It was the extreme right wing media, including Murdoch’s Fox News but also One America News, Rush Limbaugh and numerous social media outlets, that pushed the idea that Trump had really won.

This media is crucial in allowing many Republicans to believe what Trump was telling them. I think this is the key difference between now and when the last Republican president was impeached. For a long time voters were reluctant to have Nixon impeached, but eventually they agreed it should be done. But back then there was no significant media pretending it was all a giant conspiracy. Back then there were no significant people or organisations with money threatening to bring down any politicians who voted to have Nixon impeached.

I doubt if Biden has the votes to curtail the ability of Fox News and others to continue to radicalise the Republican base, even if he was minded to do so. We therefore have to hope that voters will continue to vote against this Republican party. The danger is that the mainstream media begins to normalise the Republican party once again, and a President with a Senate that blocks many of his reforms finds his popularity falling, and ends up in the position Obama was for six of his eight years.

In the UK we do not have primaries, so the direct power of the Conservative Party base is much less. The way the authoritarian right was able to win power in the UK was through a new party of the right that threatened the hegemony of the Conservative party, and through a referendum. Yet voters still had to be convinced to vote for a Prime Minister that illegally suspended parliament. That happened in part because the media landscape in the UK is much worse than in the US. I thought otherwise when I first started this blog, but that was before the Conservative party started turning the screws on the BBC. While in the US both the Trump supporting press and broadcast media are in a minority, in the UK the right wing press is a majority of the printed media and the BBC finds it difficult to deviate from the lines pushed by the government and that press.

However the situation in the UK may be about to get a lot worse, with GB News headed by Andrew Neil and the Murdoch owned News UK TV. Both new channels look like they are pitching to a right wing audience, and both are funded by people or organisations that have funded other right wing endeavours. Ofcom is supposed to ensure balance in broadcasting, which is why Sky News has never become Fox News. But with comment rather than news outlets like LBC and Talk Radio, Ofcom has taken a less strict view about what balance is.

The danger is that the two new TV channels will try and push that boundary further to the right. This is the context in which totally unfit Paul Dacre’s rumoured chairmanship of Ofcom should be seen. The danger is the creation of a right wing media bubble, where people who read the right wing press do not watch BBC News but one of these two new channels. Coupled with a FPTP system which favours social conservatives, and a Conservative party that exploits that and a social liberal vote which is divided among many parties, if these new media outlets are successful such a right wing bubble could ensure Conservative governments for a very long time.

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