Of course, the Republicans used to have their own problems with religion and with literalness (and, not least of all, dedicated humorlessness). But they were saved from themselves, I believe, by Fox News, which has become the new psychic heart of the Republican Party—taking over from the Christian Right. Here’s the biggest problem politics has today: All but an exceptional few politicians suck at making, or understanding, media. This is a surprise, because the only thing politicians want to do is get on TV. That’s their basic job. But they’re talentless. They’re zeros. The media consultants they hire to help them are mostly hacks and rejects, too. Political ads? Sheesh. It’s a form that has not advanced in twenty years. Of course, professional Republicans and right-wing people are usually no more capable than the Democrats and sappy liberals of creating a compelling and credible story line. But then there’s Roger Ailes. There’s something incredibly creepy about Ailes. He looks the way you imagine the man behind the curtain looking: That is, he doesn’t care about how he looks (which is, as it happens, gray and corpulent). He understands it’s all manipulation. When he got found out giving the president ex parte advice on handling the war, he didn’t for a second whinge or show remorse. Let others pretend—he’s too old and too good at his job to start making believe the world works any other way than the way it works. The rap on Ailes is, of course, that he’s a hopeless partisan, a true believer, a Republican agent. But that deeply misses the point. Ailes is a television guy. He’s been doing television practically as long as anyone. His digressions into politics (for Nixon and for Reagan) have always been more about television craft than about Republican craft. His is the singular obsession of any television guy: to stay on the air. Fox really isn’t in the service of the Republicans. Ailes can say this baldly and confidently. (The Republicans, more and more, follow the Fox line.) Fox isn’t in any conventional sense ideological media. It’s just that being anti-Democrat, anti-Clinton, anti-yuppie, anti-wonk turns out to be great television. Great ratings make for convenient ideology.
Now, professional political people, while surely corrupt and cynical, are also sentimentalists: They believe everybody else is as interested in politics as they are. A good television guy, who has to command the attention of the public, would never make that mistake. The West Wing, in its original, surprising incarnation, was not at all about politics. It was a show about an office that happened to be the White House. It was the basic joke, even—working in the White House was not really different from working any other place. Then, in an unconscious shift, it became not only about the White House but about some schmaltzy, patently phony version of the White House. Similarly, Fox is not really about politics (CNN, with its antiseptic beltway p.o.v., is arguably more about politics than Fox). It certainly isn’t arguing a consistent right-wing case. Rather, it’s about having a chip on your shoulder; it’s about us versus them, insiders versus outsiders, phonies versus non-phonies, and, in a clever piece of postmodernism, established media against insurgent media. Perhaps most interesting, it’s about language, or expressiveness—which politics has not been about in a long time (modern politics is the opposite of expressiveness). Fox has cultivated a fast-talking garrulousness. Traditional news is rendered slowly, at a deadly, fatherly pace. Fox gunned the engine. This was a West Wing signature, too, before it got gummy—automatic-fire patois. Cable talk. Fox, too, is about arguing—rather than the argument. It’s a Jesuit thing. Thesis. Antithesis. In the conventional-wisdom swamp of television, this passes for serious counter-programming. It’s the tweak. This is really the Fox narrative device. The entire presentation is about tweaking Democrats and boomer culture. The Fox message is not about proving its own virtue, or the virtue of aging Republicans (except, of course, for Ronald Reagan), or even of the Bushes, but about ridiculing the virtues of Democrats and their yuppie partisans. Pull their strings. Push their buttons. Build the straw man, knock it down. Night after night. Here’s the way not to get labeled a phony: Accuse the other guy of being one. Always attack, never defend. And have fun doing it. A media nation demands great media showmanship. What’s more, in a media nation, it’s logical to make the media the main issue. The most audacious part of the Fox story line—the point that drives liberals the craziest—is that Fox is the antidote to massive media bias. And that the Fox people resolutely stick to this story. The wink is very important in television (we weren’t really taking The Bachelor seriously).
Which brings us to what may be the central political conundrum of the era: Why do conservatives make better media than liberals? Fox is, after all, just the further incarnation of a successful generation of conservative radio provocateurs. There aren’t really even any liberal contenders except for Paul Krugman and Michael Moore. And Krugman’s is a victim’s voice. It assumes a kind of emasculation—conservatives are doing things to him and he’s helpless. As for Moore, it’s comedy and pretty scary narcissism—he’s satisfied being just an entertainer. And never mind Phil Donahue, MSNBC’s disastrous liberal counter-programming gambit. No, nobody who’s seriously interested in ratings and buzz wants liberals on television or even near an op-ed page. Indeed, CNBC has gone to an almost fully conservative prime-time schedule. Part of the explanation of the conservative-media success is that in a liberal nation, they have had to develop a more compelling and subversive story line. They’ve fully capitalized on the outsider, tough-talking, Cassandra thing. Accordingly, while the country remains unenthusiastic about Republican policies, as the Times reported last week, Republicans get positive ratings (go figure). And a part of this is the dancing-dog advantage. Conservatives have been hired by the heretofore liberal media to be, precisely, conservatives—hyperconservatives, even; eager exaggerations (wink). Whereas, when liberalish people are hired by liberalish media organizations, the issue is to be neutral, unliberal. The main challenge for George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week is never to let on that he once worked for the Democrats. But most of all, it’s an understanding-the-media point, which if you’re building a media career—exactly what all the conservatives tend to be doing—you get. But which if, like many liberals, you see yourself as having a higher calling than just a media career, you may not get. We can talk about politics as a metaphor for something else, as Fox does, and as The West Wing was doing—politics as a metaphor for working too hard, living in your office, being too involved with your co-workers. (Likewise, there’s Ann Coulter, who really uses politics to talk about some S&M thing.) But what we can’t do is talk about politics for its own sake. It’s way too boring. It’s too disconnected—it’s too Al Gore. And you can’t say, as almost all liberals do, “It’s boring, but it’s important.” That would be bad writing. (It’s why George Bush’s patent deficiency in talking about policy has not been so great a liability.) As opposed to the Fox writing style, which is to thrust and parry and dump on Clinton and thump a liberal snob or egghead when things get dull. So the Republicans have not only a war that walks the walk but a network that talks the talk. What the WB or MTV does for a certain demographic, that’s what Fox does. This is big.