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The Fox Charade: How the News Organization Pretends to Be Populist While Fueling Partisan Flames

Fox's formula feeds into a political strategy of promoting partisanship through heightening polarization and political conflict.


You can almost hear the growling in the background as the masters of attack politics go into action, virtually every hour on the hour, on the Fox News Channel. The issues they focus on are carefully selected by top executives and then broken down into highly politicized message points.

Their dominant emotion is annoyance as expressed in sarcasm and scowling; contempt is the underlying attitude. The other side is usually not just wrong but plain stupid, almost unbelievable in its softheaded naiveté, and distance from reality. A "what do you expect" question invariably tops off the argument that always ends with the Fox host a winner and the Democrat or social critic a loser on every level.

Standing on a podium driven by self-righteous certainty, the finger-pointers view the people they talk about, and talk down to, as below the intelligence threshold of people even worth arguing with.

In this universe, hyping the extreme and outrageous seems to attract audiences, as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have proven. That leads to higher ratings, and the real goal, higher revenues.

Clearly they feel it is their duty to play Paul Revere, who warned Colonial America that "the British are coming." They warn their faithful against political deviations that might lead them astray.

What is hard to recognize or often realize is that the topics chosen are calculated and behind a strategy of using emotionally tested wedge issues to politicize by polarizing.

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues that polarization is good for America in his new book, The Disappearing Center: He writes:

All the indicators we have show that polarization has actually contributed to increased engagement in politics, because people do perceive important differences and they think that there are big stakes in elections.

When asked if he thinks this is healthy for a democracy, he said, "Well, up to a point. I think that a certain degree of polarization is healthy in a democracy. It clarifies the choices people have in elections, and it helps voters to hold the parties accountable for their performance."

At the same time, other political analysts say, the more polarized political parties are, the less most of us care about the political process.

Survey data shows that people often take polarized positions because they think they are expected to when they identify with a certain party. With the sincerity and beliefs of Democrats mocked and under constant vitriolic attack, who would want to be thought of that way?

If they have questions, they don't raise them. It's easier to parrot the party line.

Recall, it is politicians, not "the people" who define those issues. They rely on corporate-style market research and focus groups. They choose slogans and even language that often has a patriotic subtext. When government programs are likened to socialism, it's not surprising when people who consider themselves conservatives reject them even when they don't really know what socialism is.

This is also true of what appears to be populist movements like the Tea Party, whose agenda and talking points have been established by professional consultants, guided by political operatives and funded by conservative billionaires.

As one study put it, "In other words, since the parties are now more clearly divided -- and on a broader set of issues -- it is easier for people to split accordingly, without changing their own views."

That's the key point --"without changing their own views." The dirty little secret is the discovery in many studies that the most systematic polarization appears only in mass partisanship: those who are politically active or identify themselves with a party or ideology tend to have more extreme positions than the rest of the population. But, at the same time, their core political views have changed very little. For example, many on the Right depend on and support Medicare.

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