Jonathan Chait has a terrific piece on how the entertainment media shapes political opinion especially among then young. Anybody interested in the long-term trajectory of politics should read it. Conservatives should especially read it. It helps explain why youth unemployment and underemployment is abysmally high and Obama will still win voters under age 30.
There are lots of reasons why Obama is going to win the under-30 vote when economic conditions would indicate he should lose. Part of it is racial and ethnic demographics. Republicans do better among whites and whites make up a smaller share of younger age cohorts, but I think that media ecology plays a major role in the Democratic tilt of younger voters. As Chait says, ” This [entertainment media] capacity to mold the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements, may or may not be unfair. What it is undoubtedly is a source of cultural (and hence political) power.” This is undoubtedly right as it Chait’s earlier observation that “The right has no broadcasting device of comparable scope; it tells its stories mainly through avowedly political media like talk radio and Fox News.” I also think that there are other changes in the media landscape that have occurred that particularly influence the young:
1. The expansion of media choices means that people are able to choose to avoid explicitly political media and programming. All three networks carried Reagan’s 1976, 1980, and 19784 convention speeches and the UHF channels probably ran reruns and got lousy reception. Television and movies were pretty liberal in the 1970s and 1980s too, but that didn’t stop Reagan from winning two landslides and winning the youngest cohort by 22% in 1984. I think part of it is that, no matter how many times movies like The Day After or a very special episode of Different Strokes and Silver Spoons tried to imply Reagan was going to kill us all, the media environment (which also meant fewer programming choices) pushed people into viewing at least some unfiltered messaging from the center-right. It is now a lot easier to avoid a presidential address or a Republican convention speech and to have all your peers avoid those experiences too. So the less news media that viewers consume, the higher percentage of the political content they get will come through the entertainment industry.
2. Conservative media is much more oriented to those who are already conservative. Chait writes that conservatives get their message out through talk radio and Fox News and he is right, but these media have their limitations. The first is that only a minority of Americans will choose to consume explicitly ideological news programming of whatever stripe. You will simply never reach most people this way. And by not reach them, I mean they will never hear your message as anything other than some stray sentences as they change the channel to something else. Conservative media is also designed to communicate with and please a particular audience. This is an audience that has already bought into a certain narrative of politics. They already know who the good guys and bad guys are. They have a vocabulary. They know why “limited government” is good, “socialized medicine” is bad and why we need to “get back to the Constitution.” There is nothing wrong with serving this audience, but as a tool for introducing people to ideas is problematic. Imagine you are a young person who hasn’t already been socialized into the center-right narrative tuning in. It would be like walking into the middle of a movie where the dialogue was in dialect English.
3. A larger fraction of younger voters are descended from post-1980 immigration. They have no familial ties to the center-right political narrative. It isn’t like their parents were part of the 59% who voted for Reagan in 1984. They have no familial memory of the Carter inflation, the property tax revolts, the failure of wage and price controls in the 1970s, the post-1964 increase in crime, or how “bracket creep” increased people’s tax rates even as their purchasing power was declining. If they aren’t getting any kind of center-right narrative from the media they consume, they are unlikely to get it from anywhere else.
For all that, I’m surprised at how many (not all of course) young people I’ve met who have strong center-right instincts on issues like abortion, taxes, and entitlement reform. They don’t entirely know where each of the parties stand on the issue. They don’t know what partial birth abortion is or that Obama is for it. Lots of them do believe that the fetus is a human being. Even many of those who favor lower taxes (or at least oppose higher taxes) and abortion restrictions don’t know the Republican Party as anything other than a vehicle for upper-class interest group politics and white identity politics. That is why I favor, as just one small measure, somewhat longer ads that explain policies in more detail and plain language. It would, for many young people, be the first time they ever heard an actual argument for a center-right policy, given from a sympathetic figure, in language they can understand.
There is of course an institutional and timing problem here. Actually getting a center-right message out to those already not socialized to the conservative narrative will be both expensive and time consuming. And most of that convincing will best be done between elections.
Hat tip to Joe Knippenberg for the Chait link.