In 1990, Walter Cronkite denounced American political campaigns as an “unconscionable fraud” and lamented that the presidential candidates “[defied] meaningful discourse.” The nationally revered news anchor was not alone in this assessment—during the 1992 election, attack ads drew ire from the electorate. In Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, Dan Carter aptly captures the complexity of the 1990s by juxtaposing popular backlash against the contemporary political system with the ever-popular role of anger and fear-mongering. 

Carter convincingly portrays the 1992 election as an expression of public dissatisfaction with negative campaigning and lurid reporting. Whereas the Willie Horton ad and rumours about Dukakis’ mental health proved detrimental to the Democratic campaign in 1988, Mary Matalin’s efforts to replicate this success backfired. After indirectly calling Clinton a “philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger,” Matalin was repeatedly criticized by the press and later forced to apologize. However, Carter is also quick to show that this reaction did not represent a shift in political attitude of the party establishment, much less a bipartisan one—Democrats sought to escalate the ensuing backlash, presenting the Republicans as a group of “despicable, negative […] slimehead campaigners.” Moreover, Carter explains in a footnote that attack ads on Bush constituted nearly half of all Democratic commercials even as they decried negative campaigning. This ultimately lends strong credence to the theory of elite polarization. While campaign advisors continued to rely heavily on attack ads, the American electorate signalled their interest in substantive policy and economic results. Carter writes that Clinton’s electoral victory was in large part the result of Bush’s inability to assuage the “economic fears of voters.” All this suggests that the divisive rhetoric that had been so effective in previous elections played a subservient role to that of economic policy in 1992.

However, Carter also brings up the contradictory nature of this electoral backlash. To a certain degree, the 1992 campaign represented the rejection of ideological and image-based politics. Simultaneously, however, independent candidate Ross Perot gained 19 percent of the popular vote despite refusing to “take a stand on every substantive issue.” Carter concludes that the electorate’s support for an independent candidate was indication that they were not committed to any singular political philosophy. Considering the public’s distaste for attack ads, Carter could have further argued that they were simply disillusioned with political posturing in general. Perot’s naive self-confidence and optimism would have made for an appealing alternative to the vitriol that dominated mainstream politics. While Carter brings up Perot’s success as evidence of popular support for image politics, he also presents Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America to demonstrate party support for ideological politics—a contract he unequivocally denounces as “economic glossolalia.” The Contract proved a political success, and the resounding Republican success in the 1994 midterm elections only further cemented the continuing importance of rhetoric in American politics.

Carter convincingly argues that the 1992 election marked a public backlash against negative campaigning and image politics. Attack ads, by then a mainstay of American politics, found diminished success and in some cases backfired. However, Carter also notes that this change was both temporary and limited. Politics continued to be dominated by sensationalism, and the advent of the internet would only expedite the spread of the Lewinsky scandal. 

It is the democratic citizen’s civil duty to develop an informed political opinion, to critically assess any given argument by engaging with both sides of the discussion. Yet, with myriad other forms of entertainment each vying for the consumer’s time, it is little surprise that the modern news landscape is as sensationalist as it is. In Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein admirably outlines both the source of media vitriol and a possible—if unrealistic—solution. 

Klein introduces the competition for the consumer’s time as “an all-out war” in the opening paragraphs of the chapter, convincingly establishing a clear tone for the ensuing sections. Though it seems obvious that, say, users can only watch one TV channel at a time, the military analogy serves to dispel the illusion that the news might somehow be fundamentally different from entertainment. By pitting news in direct opposition with more entertaining media, Klein makes his subsequent argument about the causal structure of news polarization all the more compelling. In order to present itself as a competitive alternative to more entertaining media, news has no option but to focus on the sensational and the dramatic. Klein supports this argument by referring to the 2016 election, where Donald Trump (by far the most incendiary candidate) received 52% of cable news mentions while the other sixteen Republican candidates split the remainder. This, then, contributes to a vitriolic cycle. News companies must cover the most controversial topics in order to appeal to an uninterested audience, and politicians are then incentivized to develop ever more extreme stances to receive the most media coverage. 

Klein goes on to discuss potential solutions for this polarization, arguing that forced exposure to different opinions only further entrenches one in their preconceptions. He first cites an academically rigorous 2017 study to provide empirical evidence, then goes on to speak directly with one of the study’s authors to delineate potential explanations for this finding. The strength of identity-protective cognition, Klein ultimately concludes, causes users to reject dissent when they are confronted with it. Klein is so compelling, not just because he supports his conclusions with external evidence, but because he consistently provides a clear explanation for the phenomena. He even goes so far as to explain why the shift to digital news—and social media in particular—exacerbates political and news polarization. All this combines to create a convincing yet unsettling portrayal of American politics. Klein hesitantly writes that polarization can be alleviated by giving users the choice of what media they consume, but this seems unrealistic in a digital environment where algorithms designed to maximize user retention suggest ideologically similar posts. Nonetheless, this potential solution attenuates the overwhelmingly pessimistic tone of the piece and injects some much-needed hope into the piece.

While Klein’s argument is generally effective, his tone occasionally detracts from the central message. In discussing opinionated journalism, he writes that his pieces are ‘obviously […] rational, judicious, disinterested, and objectively correct.” The pompousness of this declaration seems to suggest that it was intended as a joke, but even so the phrase feels out of place and fails to leave the intended impression on the reader. 

Although Klein comes off as slightly condescending at times owing to his exaggerated impartiality, his argument about the impetus of news polarization is logically sound and well-argued. He paints a chilling view of American politics, one where confrontational and controversial politicians succeed by virtue of the media coverage they generate. As the journalism industry seeks to reinvent itself to contend with emerging competitors, it may sacrifice more of its reputability. That would be a detriment, not just for the American political system but for the electorate at large.

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