July 8, 2008
Whitworth Professor's New Book, 'The Conservative Resurgence and the Press,'
Conservative talk radio and Fox News are widely credited with Republican political gains over the past three decades. However, Whitworth University Associate Professor of Communication Studies Jim McPherson challenges that conventional wisdom and analyzes the extent to which it should be applied to current political events in his latest book The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media's Role in the Rise of the Right (Northwestern University Press, 2008).
McPherson argues that direct mail and a strong, nationwide political organization contributed more than conservative broadcast media did to the Republican resurgence that began with Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980 and continued with Republicans taking control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, in 1994. Barack Obama and other Democrats have built on these strategies through effective use of the Internet to gain control of Congress and the upper hand in the 2008 presidential election. McPherson and others also recognize parallels between Reagan's and Obama's rise to popularity through stirring convention speeches and compelling campaign rhetoric. He cautions, however, that history suggests the conservative hold on power may not be over.
"I offer a warning to Democrats based on the 1946 election, when widespread dissatisfaction with Truman and the Democrat-controlled Congress allowed Republicans to gain control of Congress only to lose it again in 1948," McPherson says. "People were disgusted with the politics of the moment, but the country wasn't ready to make a major shift. We may now just be in a period of dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the war, but we may not be ready for a major shift away from conservatism."
McPherson began writing The Conservative Resurgence and the Press while working on the seventh and final volume in a history of journalism in America: Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965 to the Present (Praeger Publishers, 2006). His research identified several trends that call into question the media's inclination and ability to continue playing the traditional role of government watchdog and reformer.
Talk radio presents an interesting case study. While McPherson doesn't think conservative talk radio directly influenced many conservative political gains (except possibly in 2000), he believes it has contributed significantly to Americans' disgust with the political process and declining participation in elections. Growing political apathy increased the influence of special-interest groups, such as the Christian Coalition, which were able to mobilize large numbers of voters in support of Republican candidates – often using their own print and broadcast-media outlets.
Evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson attracted widespread support not because they spoke for most Christians on every issue, or even on hot-button issues such as abortion and homosexuality, McPherson says, but because Christians sensed nobody else was speaking for them at all. As a new and more diverse cadre of evangelical leaders has emerged with a broader political agenda, the old guard's influence has declined, as has the coalition of economic conservatives, social conservatives and neo-conservatives that supported the Republican resurgence.
"Once the coalition succeeded in getting a version of conservatism at the head of government, the various factions within the coalition realized how little they really had in common," McPherson says. "Part of it is that conservative media, with their own folks in power, don't have as much to rail against; it's a lot easier to build an audience as a critic than it is as a cheerleader."
McPherson, a former journalist, argues that the mainstream news media failed to adequately cover the resurgence of conservatism and, in many ways, has become more conservative itself. He calls on the press to focus greater attention and resources on its role in helping Americans govern themselves.
"The nature of conservatism that is most important is the affirmation of the status quo," McPherson says. "The media would do the country a greater service by becoming more liberal – not in the sense of Keith Olbermann and Air America – but liberal in the sense of challenging the status quo in the role the media have traditionally played as a watchdog on government, big business and social institutions. The media becoming more liberal also includes examining ways to make society better. That's going to be difficult to do when the primary emphasis of the news media is on profit; it's now in their interest for society not to change too much or too quickly."
Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private, liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). With an enrollment of 2,600 students, Whitworth offers 53 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
Greg Orwig, director of communications, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim McPherson, associate professor of communication studies, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4429 or email@example.com.