The Future of Conservative Media in the Republican Party

Over the past few decades, conservatives have built an enormous alternative media apparatus to counter mainstream outlets, have convinced the Republican base that the mainstream media is biased and cannot be trusted, and have established connections between media figures and Republican leaders in party organizations, Congress, and the presidency. The conservative media universe has become inseparable from the larger Republican Party network within which it lies, and Republican voters are now often more responsive to messages from media figures than from elected officials.

Conservatives are also building for the next generation. Outrage at “political correctness” on university campuses was an important theme of Rush Lim- baugh’s early programming and received periodic attention on Fox News. Today, a set of online news outlets produces daily coverage of controversial statements by leftist professors and victimized campus conservatives. Outlets like Campus Reform and the Collegiate Network hire students to police their own campuses, providing training for future conservative media figures. Organizations like the Leadership Institute, American Majority, and Turning Point USA also prepare conservative young people for futures in the conservative media ecosystem. Millennial-generation personalities like Tomi Lahren have established themselves in online social and video networks, providing a bench for conservative media’s future.

The Trump presidency has certainly stimulated liberal organizing, including by boosting the audience for liberal media outlets. But it has not undermined the strength of conservative media, despite the departure from office of prominent foils like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who dependably energized popular opposition on the right. Even with considerable recent turnover in its prime-time lineup of television personalities, Fox has remained the most-watched cable network. Conservative talk radio is likewise still unparalleled in listenership despite an aging set of celebrity hosts. As news consumption shifts to online networks like Facebook, conservative outlets have prepared to succeed by producing viral content—and Republicans have become increasingly inclined to consume and share right-of-center news on social media.

Conservative media still addresses needs and takes advantages of opportunities in the Republican Party that are not equally present in the Democratic Party. Democratic leaders do not benefit from transforming everyday policy concerns into existential ideological battles nor do they perceive the need to counteract mainstream sources as biased and oppositional. Due to the diversity of constituencies and concerns among Democratic supporters, maintaining an array of discrete interest groups, media outlets, and protest movements remains more feasible than creating or sustaining a single ideologically aligned movement.

The success of conservative media, however, has not been consistently beneficial to Republicans. They have a harder time adjusting to the limits of feasible governance and achieving a realistic policy agenda, when outrage and intransigence are better rewarded by media figures. Traditional Republican leaders no longer control the party’s nomination processes, enabling outsiders with more media cachet to gain success in primary elections. When their voters become incensed about a controversy or issue, even if it appears unwarranted, Republican politicians lack the power to change the conversation or deflect popular anger. And, perhaps most immediately, the growing power of the conservative media has led to the election of a president who is both politically controversial and unsteady in office. Many Democrats look upon the conservative media with envy, hoping to build an equally powerful counterpart on their own side, but the concurrent rise in Republican disunity and dysfunction should inspire considerable caution in anyone who seeks to replicate its success.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. What were the most important factors driving the development of conservative media?
  • 2. How likely are liberals to eventually develop a consciously ideological media infrastructure to match conservative media? What makes it easier or harder for them?
  • 3. What are the downsides of conservative media for the Republican Party? What are the upsides?

References

Broockman, D. E., & Skovron, C. (2018). Bias in perceptions of public opinion among political elites. American Political Science Review, 112(3), 542—563.

Clinton, J. D., & Enamorado, T. (2014). The national news media’s effect on congress: How fox news affected elites in congress. The Journal of Politics, 76(4), 928-943. Grossmann, M. (2014). Artists of the possible: Governing networks anti American policy change since 1945. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Grossmann, M., & Hopkins. D. A. (2015). Ideological republicans and group interest democrats: The asymmetry of American party politics. Perspectives on Politics, 13(1), 119-139.

Grossmann, M., & Hopkins, D. A. (2016). Asymmetric politics: Ideological republicans and group interest democrats. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hopkins, D. A. (2018). Who’s really winning the culture war? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL.

Levendusky, M. (2013). Why do partisan media polarize viewers' American Journal of Political Science, 57(3), 611-623.

Martin, G. J., & Yurukoglu, A. (2017). Bias in cable news: Persuasion and polarization. American Economic Review, 107(9), 2565-2599.

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