How Information Became Ideological

Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins explore how the conservative movement undermined trust in academe and the news media while building its own alternatives.

October 11, 2016
 
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Accepting the Republican presidential nomination in July, Donald Trump accused his Democratic opponents of offering “carefully crafted lies” and “media myths,” promising to “present the facts plainly and honestly.” One week later, Hillary Clinton claimed in her own acceptance speech that only Democrats “believe in science” and “sweat the details of policy,” criticizing Trump for dismissing policy experts and attacking reporters.

Both candidates presented carefully chosen statistics to justify their very different policy visions, continuing a pattern that leaves citizens with the impression that data serves as just another weapon used for political arguments. Shared facts seem to be a victim of the polarized American political system.

But a closer look reveals that each party’s relationship to information -- and the institutions that produce it -- is quite distinct. Republicans aim rhetorical fire at “mainstream” news media and “elitist” experts, whom they view as biased actors surreptitiously working to advance the cause of liberalism. Democrats defend these traditional intellectual authorities, accusing Republicans of abandoning scientific consensus and cocooning themselves in a conservative media universe with little respect for objective inquiry.

A common history lies behind those sentiments: only the Republican Party has actively opposed society’s central information-gathering and -disseminating institutions -- universities and the news media -- while Democrats have remained reliant on those institutions to justify policy choices and engage in political debate, considering them both independent arbiters and allies. Although each party’s elites, activists and voters now depend on different sources of knowledge and selectively interpret the messages they receive, the source of this information polarization is the American conservative movement’s decades-long battle against institutions that it has deemed irredeemably liberal.

Universities are thus caught in the partisan crossfire but unable to plead nonpartisanship without evoking conservative suspicions. Like journalists, faculty members are no longer regarded as impartial conveyors of information by Republicans; academics seek to conform to norms of objectivity but face a skeptical audience on one side of the partisan aisle. As institutions that strive to inform policy debates even as they remain dependent on support from political leaders, universities confront the difficult task of fulfilling their traditional research role and engaging in more active problem-solving missions while they find themselves increasingly treated as combatants in an ideological battle.

Our new book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, tells the strikingly parallel stories of how the conservative movement simultaneously undermined popular faith in both mainstream academe and journalism among its supporters, building and reinforcing Republican reliance on alternative ideological information sources. Our investigation combines historical studies with analysis of partisan political messages, public opinion, media coverage and research reports stretching over several decades.

Today, we find that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to consume media that are openly aligned with their political orientation and to distrust other news outlets. The establishment of an explicitly right-of-center media ecosystem as a conscious alternative to “mainstream” journalism allows conservative media personalities to exert an influence over Republican officeholders and voters that has no true counterpart among Democrats. Similarly, Republicans have attacked university-based researchers for advancing leftist ideas and have built explicitly conservative think tanks to reorient Washington policy debates. We find differences in the content and sources of these elite information sources, which reinforce appeals to ideology among Republicans and specialized policy analysis among Democrats.

This structural imbalance both reflects and reinforces the larger asymmetry between the parties: Republicans are organized around broad symbolic principles, whereas Democrats are a coalition of social groups with particular policy concerns. Republican perceptions of widespread bias in the mainstream media and academic community encourage party members to view themselves as engaged in an ideological battle with a hostile liberal “establishment,” turning even their choice of news or research source into a conscious act of conservative self-assertion. Consumers of conservative news media and think-tank reports are exposed to a steady flow of content that further promotes that perspective.

Democrats, in contrast, are relatively content to rely on traditional news media and intellectual sources that often implicitly flatter the Democratic worldview but do not portray themselves or their consumers as engaged in an ideological conflict. Fox News Channel and conservative talk radio lack equally popular and influential counterparts on the left. Similarly, left-of-center think tanks have adapted to conservative upstarts by frequently opposing them in policy debates, but still retain broader ties to scholarly researchers and closer adherence to academic norms.

Both Democratic voters and elites therefore remain relatively unexposed to messages that describe political conflict as reflecting the clash of two incompatible value systems. Instead, the information environment in which they reside claims to prize objectivity, empiricism and policy expertise -- thus remaining highly congruent with the character of the Democratic Party as a coalition of voters who demand targeted government actions.

Our observations do not constitute a value judgment against the conservative movement’s approach. Conservatives have had a good reason to build alternative institutions: academe and the news media are both disproportionately populated by liberals and Democrats, and have become more so over time. Most journalists and professors do not view their proper professional responsibility as advancing a left-wing political agenda, but the collective left-leaning orientation of academics and reporters influences their output -- even if implicitly or unconsciously. Conservative suspicions of science and the news media are based on fundamentally correct perceptions of these professions as disproportionately occupied by liberals.

A Self-Reinforcing Process

Although conservative elites long viewed academe and journalism as hostile to their politics, it required a sustained effort to transmit that distrust to their public supporters and to promote their alternatives. Accusations of liberal bias in each institution have long been more common than accusations of conservative bias. Declining public approval of academics and journalists coincided with the rise of alternative sources on the right that popularized ideologically motivated criticisms of these professions. Previous research shows how distrust of the news media helped to fuel conservative alternatives, which in turn gave rise to more media distrust. We find that academe has similarly become increasingly entangled in partisan conflict.

In a self-reinforcing process, conservatives have come to distrust ostensibly nonpartisan scientists and professors while creating an alternative research infrastructure for policy debate -- providing the Republican Party with its own network of policy experts that further undermines the standing of the academic community in the eyes of the right. Beginning with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale in 1951, the conservative movement has long attacked academe as excessively secular, liberal and disrespectful of social institutions and America’s exceptional history. Campus protest activity in the 1960s provoked more antagonism from the right, prompting future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr. to recommend that conservatives develop their own scholarly networks and institutions to balance faculties, demand equal time in campus speaking and media debates, and evaluate textbooks.

Conservatives founded Accuracy in Academia in 1985 to be a campus watchdog, following up with efforts to create networks of conservative academics. Conservative critics as diverse as Rush Limbaugh, Allan Bloom and Dinesh D’Souza later found easy targets in academe, constantly poking fun at “political correctness” and deploring or mocking the behavior of extremely liberal professors. Although initially focused on the humanities and social sciences, the scope of conservative targets grew to include the hard sciences in debates over environmental regulation -- especially climate change -- and issues such as stem cell research that pitted scientists against religious authorities.

Attacks by conservative-movement leaders on academic science have successfully influenced the conservative public. Data from the General Social Survey demonstrate that declining public faith in science is concentrated among conservatives. Compared to Democrats, Republicans are significantly less likely to trust what scientists say, more critical of political bias in academe and less confident in colleges and universities. Negative attitudes toward science and the media also intersect, with one-third of Republicans reporting no trust in journalists to accurately report scientific studies. Attitudes toward scientists have become more polarized while confidence in the role of scientists in political debates has eroded overall.

Just as the conservative movement built a national media apparatus, conservatives have also developed a network of policy experts outside the liberal confines of academe. The key development in the rise of this rival center of power was the 1973 founding of the Heritage Foundation by former Republican congressional aides Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner. Heritage represents the “prototypical advocacy think tank” with “no academic pretensions,” in the words of economist and former Ronald Reagan adviser Murray Weidenbaum, seeing itself as engaged in a “war of ideas” rather than producing objective scholarship.

In a 1988 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, another conservative think tank, Reagan himself noted that conservative ideas had been “greeted with varying degrees of scorn and hostility by what we used to call the establishment institutions … And so, it became necessary to create our own research institutions.” Reagan used the speech to declare “the triumph of the think tank,” saying “the most important American scholarship comes out of our think tanks.” Nationwide, conservative think tanks outnumber their liberal counterparts by a two-to-one margin and have been growing at a much faster rate than left-leaning or nonideological institutions.

From the Democratic point of view, Republicans have undermined a system of empirical expertise based in academe by establishing institutions for ideological advocacy disguised as scholarly enterprises. From the Republican perspective, separate groups of policy specialists agree with the objectives of each party; any deviations from a balance between those two sides constitutes bias. This dispute in interpretation does not challenge the agreed-upon facts: the conservative movement founded a series of think tanks to counteract a liberal academic establishment and expects them to be treated as equally respected participants in policy debates.

Compared to Republicans, Democrats are more likely to trust scientists to supply the research base for public policy -- just as Democrats rely primarily on mainstream news media outlets to report on problems, debate potential solutions and police the information presented by each side. Perceiving liberal bias in both sets of institutions, Republicans look to their own network of think tanks to provide research consistent with conservative ideology and to a set of avowedly conservative media sources to popularize their ideas among the public.

The same patterns of information use and dissemination are repeated in every election and each policy dispute, producing a political conversation that is less a “great debate” over principles and policies than an asymmetric dialogue between combatants who do not share each other’s premises. Democrats accuse Republicans of ignoring scientific information and enveloping themselves in an alternative media universe -- criticisms that have some merit but understate conservatives’ legitimate aversion to trusting institutions overwhelmingly composed of liberals to fairly adjudicate information on the public’s behalf. The two sides talk past one another when they intersect, but conservatives’ successful efforts to delegitimize mainstream outlets and to construct alternatives mean that Republicans are more often engaged in a separate conversation.

University faculty and administrators, like reporters and media executives, have suffered a decline in prestige and influence from a societal conflict in which attacks come overwhelmingly from the ideological right. Academics and journalists can neither ignore conservative critiques in the hope that bipartisan trust will automatically return nor abandon their own formal neutrality to become openly left-wing mirror images of conservative institutions. This damage will be difficult to repair, but requires an acknowledgment that academe has become a central participant in contemporary partisan debates, with the Republican leadership and nearly half of the American public standing in fervent opposition. Mainstream researchers and journalists may claim a devotion to simple empirical objectivity, but this stance is difficult to maintain when information has become fodder for the political wars.

Bio

Matt Grossmann is director of the institute for public policy and social research at Michigan State University, and David A. Hopkins is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College. This submission is adapted from Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, published last month by Oxford University Press.

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