More on the Fox Effect, Part 4

TPM Reader BG hits on a point I’ve been thinking about a lot in this “Fox Effect” series. As we’ve noted, you don’t just stand up a cable news network and suddenly everyone’s a cranky racist sending Obama witch-doctor emails. If only it were so easy. But I also don’t think it’s just as simple as saying that Fox is a mirror of the political journey/worldview of one generation or cohort of the American population. It’s clearly been a driver of political ideas and, for many, political identity, coupled with and growing out from conservative talk radio.

One key in my mind has been to affirm and normalize views that have been considered unacceptable to express or at least express out loud. And that’s no small thing.

Movements and political consciousness are inherently social. If you go back to the coalescence of the “netroots” movement within the Democratic party (not a good name for it) there’s something broadly similar afoot. You can trace this from the Democrats reaction to the impeachment crisis in ’98 and ’99, through the outrage at the contested 2000 election, nursed along by grassroots web-based communities, picked up by the Dean Movement and in some ways reaching fruition in the 2006 landslide election and the 2008 Obama campaign (though the Obama world was always very arms length from many elements of this community). There were a lot of different strains in what I’m drawing together here. A number of people who didn’t want much to do with each other. But here too we have relatively isolated people finding communities and media sources that in essence tell them, “No, you’re not the only who feels this way. A lot of other people do to. And you can connect up with them. And then you can do things together.”

That sort of affirmation is no minor thing. It is actually explosive in political terms. And while the sociology of the older Fox group and the generally younger new era Dem group is very, very different, there is some parallel. Where we see it here is Fox’s ability to tell people that some rather unlovely views and beliefs and hopes are okay, are normal and that a lot of other people think the same way.

I have a bit of a quibble with BG’s take on the generational cohort we’re talking about here – I think in mainly we’re talking about a younger set of people. But he’s got a good point on the normalizing role of Fox News, as I’ve sketched it out above …

I’ve been reading your Fox Effect posts with interest, but I think you may be missing an important, if more sinister, point here. The people your correspondents are discussing — usually their parents, and older ones at that — grew up at a strange time in American history. The 1930-1960s were decades of shocking and profound changes in America and the world. And nowhere were those changes more evident than in race relations. And while the country has evolved, as one correspondent has it, I am not sure that evolution took with many people from that generation. And I think Fox News has liberated latent anger, dislike and prejudice that simply did not have an acceptable outlet in polite society in the pre-Obama days.

Let’s take my grandmother, for instance. She’s 93, grew up in Washington, DC, where she has lived all her life, and always had what one might term “antiquated” views on race. She wasn’t racist in the Archie Bunker way, but she clearly retained Washington’s Old South views on race relations, though until recently she covered it quite well. Fast forward to the Obama years — and her turning on Fox a bit too much — and the old, suppressed racism is on full display. She is also angry at “immigrants,” conveniently forgetting that she was born in Eastern Europe.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think Fox changed her in any serious way; I believe Fox has changed what counts for permissible rhetoric on race and social ills in this country. And I think that the old, suppressed views on race from the childhood of older Boomers and the remaining Depression-era generation are liberated by that permissiveness. It’s not Fox spewing hate that makes these people hate. They already hated, but for decades it just wasn’t ok to say it out loud, and you saw little of it in the mainstream media. Now, however, it’s ok to say it out loud because the guys on TV say it, and so others must also believe it. Scary stuff.