According to Gallup data, 40% of Americans are conservative while only 20% are progressive. Analysts have offered many different reasons for that disparity and why it increased in 2008 and early 2009, even as conservative policies produced failure after failure and Democrats won sweeping electoral victories. I think part of that disparity can be traced to the very different ways political and business news are framed, even on "progressive" outlets like MSNBC or here at DailyKos.
More below the fold....
Hero Narratives - A Tale of Two Frames (Non-Cynical Saturday)
Conservatism dominated American politics for the past three decades, so it's hardly surprising that more Americans self-identify as conservative than as liberal/progressive. But I was surprised to see that disparity increase over the past 20 months, despite the failures of conservative policies under the Bush era and even while Democrats swept elections in 2006 and 2008. Republicans are fleeing their party, its numbers are at near record lows, but conservatives aren't fleeing their ideology. As one pundit described it, American voters are like the patient who knows he's sick but doesn't trust his doctor. They know they need help, but they don't trust government to provide it.
Yesterday we explored Hero Narratives. In fiction, if the story ends with an incomplete solution to the outer problem, it will almost always be because the hero had an unresolved inner conflict in his/her motives. That pattern works in fiction because writers cheat, writing or rewriting early scenes to make sure all of the necessary conditions for a complete solution are present for the later scenes. If the hero doesn't take advantage of those conditions, it's almost always because he/she has conflicted motives.
That's also the frame we most commonly see in media coverage of politics. In News Narratives and News Framing: Constructing Political Reality, University of Alabama professor Karen Johnson-Cartee calls this the "game frame" or "strategy frame." Politics is discussed as if elected leaders see it as a game to be played for personal and/or partisan advantage, where concern for the public's needs is a mere pretense, or at best only a distant secondary motive behind self-aggrandizement and gaining political capital. Psychoanalysis replaces policy analysis, and leaders' decisions are explained in terms of conflicted and/or impure motives.
It's tempting to believe we've always focused on the "game frame," and that we focus on it throughout the news. Neither is true, and the ways neither is true may reveal a lot about that Gallup polling on ideology.
Two Topics, Two Frames.
Turn on MSNBC any weekday evening at 7pm ET, and you will see Chris Matthews and Hardball. Flip over to CNBC at that same hour, and you will see Larry Kudlow and The Kudlow Report. The networks are siblings in the NBC family, often share guests and even reporters. The famed peacock logo appears on both. But the networks frame stories very differently.
On The Kudlow Report, you'll hear reporters and guests discuss the interplay of economic systems and current conditions. On a typical evening, you'll probably see lots of graphs showing trends in markets or companies. If you're not a business or economics maven - and I'm not - the details can be dizzying. There may be a segment about some business leader's personal story, but most of the hour focuses on the systems and conditions that inform economic/business policy analysis. Larry Kudlow won't ask if Bill Gates is "tough enough" to put out a good operating system, or whether he needs to "twist some arms" to get his programmers to fix problems in Windows 7. Less-than-ideal business outcomes will usually be presented in the context of external factors: systemic complexity, market trends, etc.
On Hardball, by contrast, you'll hear reporters and guests - some who also appear on The Kudlow Report - discuss political leaders' motives and self-seeking strategies. There usually won't be many graphs depicting trends in the problems government is addressing or the resources available to address those problems. You won't hear a lot of details about the interplay of systems and conditions. You may very well hear Chris Matthews ask if President Obama or another leader is "tough enough" to get some policy done, or whether the leader needs to "twist some arms" to fix a legislative problem. And less-than-ideal political outcomes will usually be presented in the context of internal factors: elected officials' conflicted motives.
We see the same dichotomy here on DailyKos. Business and economic diaries are usually system-framed, with graphs and explanations of the interplay of economic systems and conditions. Political issue diaries are usually game-framed, with analysis focusing on leaders' conflicted motives. This is not limited by party; we usually apply that same frame, whether we're analyzing Republican or Democratic leaders.
The dominance of the "game frame" in political reporting is fairly recent. Dr. Johnson-Cartee cites data comparing coverage of the 1960 and 2000 presidential campaigns. In 1960, only 10% of the news stories about that election were cast in the "game frame." In 2000, fully 80% of the news stories were cast in the "game frame." The exclusive focus on Hero Narratives and psychoanalysis in politics seems to have taken root after Watergate, and has become the dominant frame in political reporting since. That correlates to the rise of conservatism as the dominant political ideology in the U.S.
Different frames, different consequences.
Most Americans still trust business leaders' decisions, even when we see incomplete solutions and less-than-ideal outcomes. Those are presented and explained in terms of external factors, so we cut business a lot of slack. We look for business and economic explanations in terms of systems and conditions, rather than motives.
Conversely, most Americans distrust political leaders decisions and we cut government almost no slack at all. The framing of political news has trained us to attribute incomplete solutions or less-than-ideal outcomes to internal factors: our leaders' self-seeking pursuit of power in the political "game." We look for political explanations in terms of motives, rather than systems and conditions.
If conservatism is most fundamentally about trusting business over government and progressivism is most fundamentally the converse, those different media frames may go a long way toward explaining why Americans are still trending conservative ... even in 2008 and early 2009, despite the manifest policy failures of conservatism in recent years, despite the current flight from the GOP, and even as Democrats swept the past two elections.
If that explanation is true, how might we progressives try to change it?