What the Left Can Learn from the Right About Winning Elections

IN 1988, Verso Books published a collection of writings by cultural theorist Stuart Hall titled The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. Hall’s work examined the socio-economic conditions and discursive tactics that led to the ascendance of Margaret Thatcher as an expression of what he called “Thatcherism.” For Hall, the term described a process by which “new discursive articulations between the liberal discourses of the ‘free market’ and economic man and the organic conservative themes of tradition, family, and nation, respectability, patriarchalism and order” are forged. Culturally, Thatcherism “disciplines the society into a particularly regressive version of modernity by […] dragging it backwards through an equally regressive version of the past.”
Hall tethered this series of insights to his reflections on the “Crisis of the Left,” which stemmed from the very same set of socio-economic conditions. “What now is the conception of ‘the public,’ of ‘the social good,’ indeed, of ‘society’,” Hall asked, “to set against Mrs. Thatcher’s assertion that ‘there is no society,’ only individuals and their families?” Despite the publication date, Hall composed most of his collected pieces throughout the 1970s in an attempt to both analyze a contemporaneous event and to supply its detractors with the tools necessary to dismantle it. Hall labeled this extended moment, “The Great Moving Right Show.” In many ways, we continue to inhabit this moment of crisis by remaining transfixed upon its pomp and circumstance. But in 2019, such an event goes by a much different name than it did almost half a century ago: Fox News.
Despite the voluminous historiographies on the American right, the Christian right, and/or the religious right, many of them continue to be beholden to what Media Studies scholar Reece Peck identifies as “reductionist analytical tendencies” in his new monograph, Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class. Like Hall, Peck is interested in the ways in which American conservatism has been studied in both historical and political terms. Also akin to Hall, Peck’s work is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing from the likes of sociology, cultural studies, American history, and political science in order to examine its dynamic subject: the production of conservative political discourse. To this end, Peck utilizes an eclectic evidentiary base, including interviews, participant observation, and close readings of various program episodes from The O’Reilly Factor to Hannity to Glenn Beck. Additionally, Peck’s keen analyses of Fox News’s most common buzzwords and catchphrases, including the usage of “producers and parasites,” elegantly illustrates the depth of his discourse analysis when it comes to what has been referred to as “the Republican Noise Machine.” In short, the quality of Peck’s analysis stems from his intentionality when it comes to the study of conservatism itself. Fox News is not something to simply decry in the pages of Fox Populism; it is something to understand deeply, to subject to careful examination, and to render its inner workings fully to those who are willing to read on.
Peck’s analysis begins with a provocative history of Fox News by way of its highest-profile figures: Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly. Each individual represented a particular branch of media deployed and largely conquered by conservative means and interests. For example, if Murdoch dominated the realm of print by way of tabloid journalism, then Ailes and O’Reilly dominated the television arena by disseminating and thus embodying a particular working-class style as a form of substantive conservative politics. Like much of American conservatism during the 1970s, Peck’s subject also takes advantage of populist arguments and vocabularies to draw additional eyeballs to screens across the country. In ingenious fashion, Murdoch, O’Reilly, and others combined position marketing tactics with the populist impulse to identify a despised social Other in order to carve out its own space in a burgeoning media market. This style of news-as-entertainment has not only challenged the United States’s middlebrow sensibilities as evidenced by The New York Times or National Public Radio, it has also highlighted one of democracy’s greatest vulnerabilities: “[A]llowing charismatic demagogues access to mass media through which they could speak directly to the fears, superstitions, and ‘prejudices’ of ‘the masses.’” Pitched in a populist idiom of common sense and intuition, a rhetorical tapestry deserving of continued academic study, Fox News eventually came to dominate the ratings and assume top billing as the United States’s most watched network. How did this take place, and why?
As seen and heard on Fox News, the most recent iteration of American populism has very little to do with calling out monopolies or unjust economic systems — just the opposite. True freedom can only be monitored and established by dismantling the bloated, elitist bureaucracies of academia, “big media,” and the federal government. Populist conservatives on Fox have achieved this feat by delimiting their respective communities as exterior to institutions of American governance as opposed to those communities who seek the resources and protection within the very same institutions, e.g., the Supreme Court and the public square. While many religious conservatives still seek to wield and deploy federal power on behalf of the unborn, thereby partaking in the very thing they seek to destroy, populist conservatives have mobilized by constituting themselves and others through the illiberal rhetorical means of “the outsider to Washington” and its subsequent corruption. Not only do such claims echo those made by then-Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, but they have also contributed to the erosion of expertise and traditional, aspirational journalism since at least the 1970s. To Peck, this is cultural populism at its finest — a type of “political discourse that champions the common wisdom, taste, and intellectual capacities of everyday people, and denounces justifications for power based on credentials and elite cultural knowledge.” In this sense, Fox News is anything but an anti-intellectual source of news; rather, Fox News is best understood as a “popular interface for conservative intellectual culture.”
Peck’s elegant pivot from the assumed conclusion of anti-intellectualism toward a more nuanced analysis of the subject of Fox News itself says everything about what still renders much of the academic profession confused when it comes to explaining conservatism to public audiences. In many ways, much of the humanistic and social scientific work on conservatism since the early 1980s has been directed less at the audiences involved, and more toward how well such work explains conservatives and conservatism to other academics. In fact, one could argue that academia itself is structured to reproduce this very phenomenon.
The rules of career advancement within higher education institutions encourage left intellectuals to rely on “closure” strategies of cultural legitimation. While this type of strategy might be effective in achieving prestige, it also tends to isolate experts and increases the risk they will become politically and culturally irrelevant.
Such irrelevance has arguably stemmed from the fact that analysts typically assume a selfish and/or unseemly motivation for most conservative or populist mobilization efforts in the public square. Once assumed, the concrete motivations or social factors driving such efforts remain obscured from both analytical and historical views. As a result, this scholarly vantage prevents any and all social or structural analysis from determining the socio-economic conditions that lead to the production of mass movements, conservative or otherwise, in the first place. In other words, the crisis of the left continues to live on in the academy’s inability to see, as Peck puts it, conservatives as “moral thinkers.”
In times such as these, we should hear Hall’s words ring more clearly than ever in the name of sustained response. To replace one leader temporarily with another for the sake of illustration, “[Trumpism] is not simply a worthy opponent of the left, but in some deeper way its nemesis, the force that is capable in this historical moment of unhinging it from below.” Peck’s provocative work is significant because it illustrates specifically how the left can begin to move forward conceptually with a renewed attention to detail and a deeper appreciation for the density and polyvocality of conservative media. It is only by violently attending to things as they presently are that an alternative can be forged from the rubble of the New Deal consensus. For Hall, the choice is simple: “Far from occupying a different world from that of Thatcherism, we can only renew the project of the left by precisely occupying the same world that Thatcherism does, and building from that a different form of society.” While that difference, in all of its beauty and fullness, remains to be seen, Fox Populism gives us an admirably clear and much-needed blueprint for future studies of the intimate, yet volatile relationship between mass media, populist movements, and American conservatism in the 21st century.
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L. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor at Monmouth University in History and Anthropology, and a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University in Religious Studies.
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