In this last blog post I’d like to telegraph the conclusions of my paper. (And by the way, don’t we need a more up-to-date linguistic metaphor than “telegraph”? I’m going to text my conclusions? Doesn’t sound right. Oh well.)
My paper is centered on two key questions:
- How might we theoretically understand highly partisan and/or ideological media, both in relation to their audiences, and in their operation within the public sphere?
- How can this theoretical understanding (developed in answer to question 1) help us to determine the structural breakdown between and within such media? That is, political affiliation is traditionally seen as a simple left/right, or possibly left/right/center. However, in addition to the disagreement between groups, there is often disagreement within groups. So are the media of the far left and right truly distinct, and does disagreement within a group indicate the group is really composed of several distinct but allied groups?
I’ll spend a bit of time in the presentation going over my answer to #1. But in this post I’ll get to the juicer bits. My approach involved studying partisan/ideological media reactions the NSA spying as these reactions didn’t fall neatly along party lines. In particular, I want to know if those on the right and left who opposed the spying exhibit some underlying similarities, or if there are underlying differences between those on the right who support the spying and who oppose the spying. (This last question is particularly timely, as there’s a strong libertarian-seeming component to the right, lately, and there is a real question of how much or little this group aligns with the more traditional right.)
The key approach was, per Rei and Cintron, to look not so much at what the groups opposed, but how they construct that opposition. (All of the articles were opposed to something; in fact opposition was so key that I think both left and right, no matter how much power they actually have, function as counterpublics.) So here is a “quick” summary of the findings:
The Right: Both groups (pro and anti-spying) build from existing partisan/ideological schema, drawing in particular on the recent news of local IRS offices targeting conservative groups (though the targeting of liberal groups is ignored, as is the lack of connection to any federal official). Those opposed to spying build their argument from the basis of virtue, arguing government is innately wicked and thus cannot be trusted. This view also defines “private” as “unknown to the government,” and suggests essentially everything should be private. As a result, it functionally eliminates the public sphere as a means of influencing government, as virtue is seen as innate rather than a response to social pressure. No social pressure can make a bad person (or institution) good, so the only acceptable approach is to disempower or eliminate the non-virtuous. Supporters of spying rely on specific definitions of government and private, seeking to differentiate between good/bad branches of government, and private vs. public. However, these authors still operate from a largely virtue-driven perspective, which tends to minimize the role of a public sphere. Thus there are some differences between the groups, but also a core similarity that undermines the public sphere for both groups. Thus I would argue that despite their differences, they function as a single public insofar as the way in which they construct their relationship to government, both in support (military, etc) and opposition (IRS, everything else), is essentially the same.
The Left: There are no pro-spying positions evident in the left-wing articles, and a great deal of time is spent attacking Democrats who supported the spying (and some time attacking Republicans who supported it as well). The key problem identified by the left is not even the spying itself, but the secret nature of the spying. This suggests a fundamental belief in the public sphere—a belief that public discourse is a key means of keeping government in check. Related to this position are several attacks on the notion of a good/evil dichotomy, which might be seen as attacks on the virtue-based view of government supported by the right.
Preliminary Conclusions: Despite the strong internal policy disputes on the right and the talk of the Tea Party as something new, I don’t believe this is the case. The Tea Party and the “traditional” right both construct opposition in the same way, and with the result that they see the public sphere as powerless. There is a certain irony here, of course, insofar as the right-wing media are participating in the public sphere, and, I would argue, are having a profound effect. In any case, such a view may explain why the goals of the right tend to be to eliminate government or its power rather, and perhaps even the right’s opposition to regulation (if personal virtue cannot be impacted by rules, as they suggest, then why regulate? Just trust the “good” people, and eliminate the “bad” people).
The left, on the other hand, operates from a very traditional Habermas-ian perspective, and sees public debate as a reasonably powerful and absolutely essential influence on the state. Again, this explains the left’s focus on regulation, and even on government itself. If people’s actions are not mere binary reflections of some innate morality, then rules really matter, and it’s vital that we discuss those rules.
Finally, I think this all offers a rather hopeless picture for those interested in “bipartisan cooperation.” Basically, I’m not sure such a thing is possible because the publics’ disagreements about policy and even ideology (small government, etc) are likely just symptoms of a far more fundamental disagreement about the nature of human morality and the effectiveness of public discourse that operates as sort of partisan schema through which we filter information and which leads us to fundamentally different policy views.