No war but the culture war: Why right-wing media can’t stop finding things to be outraged over
By directing attention away from actual issues, Fox News and others can reframe how we look at politics
What do Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, and the movies Peter Pan and Gone with the Wind all have in common? According to the promotional video for Greg Gutfeld’s new Fox News show, this motley crew of pop culture artifacts have all been unjustly “cancelled” by liberals and progressives.
Yes, you can still purchase a Mr. Potato Head toy, both Peter Pan and Gone with the Wind are available for streaming and purchase, and with just a handful of exceptions, Dr. Seuss’ beloved works remain on the shelves of libraries and bookstores worldwide -- but that’s beside the point. What matters to Gutfeld and others in right-wing media is that they can use the specter of a never-ending culture war to keep an otherwise disengaged audience invested in their programs and their politics.
Right-wing culture war narratives aren’t new. Remember the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque?” Or how about the annual clown car of cultural grievances that have been aired in the name of fighting the “War on Christmas?” Or the school that planned to abolish the words “boys” and “girls” in favor of calling students “purple penguins?” Now, of course, none of these things were as described: The “Ground Zero Mosque” was not actually at ground zero and it wasn’t primarily going to be a mosque, “War on Christmas” stories are usually bunk, and no, that school didn’t actually abolish any words and children were not referred to as “purple penguins.”
Lately, however, it seems that culture war filler narratives intended to excite and outrage right-wing audiences are taking up an increasingly large amount of airtime, often at the expense of topics that would have been narrative centerpieces for weeks on end in years past. For instance, as my colleague Matt Gertz recently noted, there was a marked difference between the wall-to-wall outrage that met President Barack Obama’s $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 and the relative silence that met President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan relief bill. Instead, right-wing stalwarts like Fox News were busy discussing Dr. Seuss. I wanted to understand why.
Stuck with a wildly unpopular policy agenda, “owning the libs” is all that right-wing media has to offer.
In September, as the public relations battle over the replacement Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg heated up, I wrote about mainstream media’s tendency to treat far-right policy views as more reasonable than views on the left. It was a look at the bizarre and backwards treatment given to broadly popular Democratic policy positions compared to less popular Republican proposals.
Generally speaking, pieces of legislation that tend to be introduced and championed by Democrats -- such as bans on high-capacity magazines, the reintroduction of the assault weapons ban, extending nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people in employment, and increasing taxes on the wealthy -- are popular with the general public. On the flip side of this, Republican actions like the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act, and even the party’s 2017 tax overhaul are far less palatable to the broader population.
Thankfully for Republicans, there has been a tendency within major media outlets to describe popular ideas as “far-left” or “extreme,” providing a convenient buffer for the GOP by planting the idea that any given Democratic proposal is outside of the mainstream. This has helped shield Republican lawmakers from having to revamp their own policy goals, but Republicans still needed to find a message that would resonate with their voters, especially while the party is out of power.
Unable or unwilling to adjust its actual policy positions to fall more in line with public opinion, the Republican Party has instead opted to play to its base’s sense of grievance and victimhood.
At FiveThirtyEight, writer Perry Bacon Jr., lays out a strong case for why the Republican Party seems to have gone all-in on crusades against “cancel culture” and “woke” people as their primary ideological strategy. In short, Bacon argues that Republicans will continue to embrace “cancel culture” as a core part of their political messaging because it’s easy, it’s unifying, it provides the basis for a policy infrastructure, it creates preemptive excuses and rationalizations for past and future bad behavior on their part, and it might help them turn out some swing voters in the 2022 midterms. It’s an insightful piece of writing that is definitely worth taking the time to read.
While I agree with Bacon’s assessment, I think it’s important to really highlight the role that right-wing media plays in providing ammunition for this GOP strategy, turning pop culture tantrums into bonafide culture war bombshells.
Without the drumbeat of a right-wing media ecosystem, conservative culture wars can’t break through.
For years, Fox News and others on the right have given airtime and attention to stories that more respectable outlets would either gloss over or ignore in their entirety. When CNN devoted wall-to-wall coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, it was viewed as a bizarre aberration for the news network that was widely mocked for its commitment to a story that had very few actual developments to report on.
Fox News essentially does this every week as part of its core programming. After all, it’s not like there were many actual updates on Dr. Seuss Enterprises axing six of its titles beyond that first day, but that didn’t stop Fox from covering the story obsessively for days. The big difference between CNN’s odd Flight 370 obsession and Fox News’ coverage of Dr. Seuss is that CNN wasn’t covering the story as a way to promote a political agenda -- Fox News was.
In December 2018, I wrote an article calling Tucker Carlson Tonight “the local news broadcast from hell.” In it, I highlighted how Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show devoted significant airtime to a silly story about a college student who had his face photoshopped onto a picture of a saltine cracker more than a year earlier, despite it being a fairly busy news day. That’s all pretty standard for Carlson’s show, which often serves as a “greatest hits” of local interest news stories that have no business being broadcast to an audience of millions. Carlson has also devoted time to California school dress codes, high schools that decide not to hold cheerleading tryouts, art installations on college campuses, and the like. All of these stories, while completely devoid of national news value, serve the GOP’s culture war agenda.
Fox News has the reach and ability to transform just about anything into a culture war flashpoint about conservatives being unfairly targeted and victimized. In 2019, Fox News host Laura Ingraham led the charge against a movie called The Hunt by telling her audience that the film glorified the murder of Trump supporters, which wasn’t true. That same year, Fox tried to expand its “War on Christmas” coverage by claiming there was a liberal “War on Thanksgiving.”
It was Fox personalities who helped turn COVID-19 deterrents like masks and lockdowns into partisan issues, and they were also the ones who drove home the message that the 2020 election was a question about the survival of civilization.
There is nothing too inane or uncontroversial for right-wing media to portray as an existential threat if it’s advantageous to do so. Architecture, transgender rights, store dress codes; you name it and right-wing media outlets have likely had a meltdown or two over it. These issues only work politically because organizations presenting themselves as reputable sources of news keep telling audiences that they should care. Had Fox not devoted significant time to being angry about Mr. Potato Head, it’s hard to imagine many people would be stewing with rage over a clumsy write-up of a Hasbro press release.
The Republican Party can get away with not having a clear legislative agenda because it simply doesn’t need one. Mainstream media outlets are happy to grade them on a curve by labeling Democratic proposals as “extreme,” and right-wing media have the ability to churn out and amplify the culture war stories that serve as a substitution for conservative policies.
Politics in 2021 is not a battle of ideas or a question of whose vision for the country is best, but is instead a battle for attention of any sort.
So long as Fox News and others on the right can invent or exaggerate culture war controversies for their audiences to feel strongly about, they will continue to be able to hijack the political conversation whenever they want and for whatever purposes they need. Political ideologies aside, this is bad for democracy. Sadly, that may be the point.