Yesterday, the clock counting down to the final Fox News GOP debate before the Iowa caucus left the bottom-right corner of the Fox News Channel viewer’s screen only during commercial breaks. The debate took place in that pivotal primary state, heightening the sense that this event is the end of the road for all but a couple of this endearing dramatis personae. “Our” country must be rescued from the grasp of the Marxist college professor, and for the past year and a half, the message on Fox has been as clear and urgent as Elrond’s appeal to the Fellowship: “One of you must do this.”
The stated goal of this or any debate is to get candidates talking about issues of concern to voters, and to elicit responses from individual candidates that help “the viewer” to make informed electoral decisions. That’s all well and good. In fact, this sort of controlled truth-hunting is the prerogative of political journalism as it is commonly formulated. However, the cancer of corporate journalism, and of political discourse in the United States, is the denial of ideology at work in “objective” representations of reality. It is characteristic of centrist and rightist media to assume not only the possibility but the necessity of being “Fair & Balanced” in the pursuit of “truth” and its presentation to the viewing/listening/reading subject. The fallaciousness of this assumption is central to the Marxist critique of ideology – French philosopher Louis Althusser describes the process through which culture addresses its subject in terms of interpellation. Interpellation simultaneously creates and presumes the preexistence of the subject’s recognition of itself as having identity: a famous example is the police officer who calls after a pedestrian, “Hey, you!” The pedestrian hears the call and turns to face the officer – in this moment, the subject (the pedestrian) has recognized not only the authority of that external entity but also her own relationship to that authority as one of identity. In psychoanalytic terms, the unconscious, determinant process is an acknowledgement of the superego by the ego. I am part of a larger structure because I am addressed as such. I fit in here because there is a space for me.
These debates are one particular incarnation of Fox News’s (broadly, media’s) constant interpellation of the viewer. The presentation of the debate itself is virtually inseparable from the discourse surrounding it: the anticipatory speculations and predictions, the obligatory consultation of pundits during commercial breaks, the endless analysis for days, even weeks afterwards. A friend who watched with me noted the almost absurd similarities to the way sporting events, particularly in the United States, are dramatically narrativized by “commentary” and “analysis”. The ideology at work in media interpellation functions in simultaneously creative and regulatory capacities. Fox News frames the phenomenon (not just the two-hour block of time) of the GOP debate as the forum for interaction between “the people”(Republican/independent voters) and the presidential candidates. The content of this interaction is mediated (one might say, moderated) by ideological positioning on the part of Fox News, positioning whose influence transcends the direct input of the moderators (anchors Brett Baier, Chris Wallace, Neil Cavuto, and my heartthrob Megyn Kelly) and extends to everything from the wording of questions to the arrangement of candidates onstage. This isn’t to say that Fox News’s interpellation is somehow “more ideological” than that of other news networks, who have also hosted debates. However, Fox News’s position in the cable universe as the de facto propaganda arm of the GOP makes their debates particularly crucial and fascinating: At the same time as the debate coverage aligns the viewer with the object of Republican campaign efforts, it also refers to its imagined subject in order to shape a pervasive sociopolitical discourse that can both determine and reinforce the Republican party line.
Newt Gingrich, following the lead of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other prominent ultraconservative pundits, has repeatedly criticized the media hosts of these debates (particularly when Fox News is not hosting) for trying to pit Republicans against each other by asking them to address ideological inconsistencies (i.e. flip-flopping) and differences. Considering that with the exception of Ron Paul there is virtually no major policy rift within the GOP, such comments imply a duty on the part of media to refrain entirely from critical framings of issues. This is rather telling, in that it frames the debate as a competition to see who of these supposedly ideologically identical Republicans can achieve the goal that provides the overarching narrative for the race and the current Republican agenda: to “beat Obama,” to throw back into the fire from whence it came the One Ring of possible gradual movement towards (gasp) social democracy. What is it a movement from, you ask? Liberal democracy, of course – not that they’d put it that way. In GOP terminology, that’s called “freedom.”
As conservative “Fox News Contributors” have been prone to say, the best candidates from both an ideological and possibly electoral standpoint have chosen to sit this race out. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Wisconsin Congressperson and alleged grandma-killer Paul Ryan, and self-proclaimed grizzly bear Sarah Palin have been the object of untold salivation and would supposedly have been the runaway choices for the Republican nomination, had they run. That may be. But gun-toting “Washington outsider” Rick Perry’s candidacy was similarly anticipated, and despite his notable Texacity, the synchrony of his myriad bigotries with those of the Republican “base,” and crypto-fascist platforms, x-factors like the insufficient media/debate management he received from his ostensibly incredibly inept campaign staff have caused Ranger Rick’s astronomical hypothetical-candidacy poll numbers to fizzle out. Though he looked relatively assured, it is indicative of Perry’s lack of momentum that his first (and only memorable) statement of the night was a pandering reference to Tim Tebow. Comparing himself to the vehemently pro-life Denver Broncos quarterback, whose marked upswing in form has recently made him the cause celebre for conservatives in general and evangelicals in particular, Perry once again made a spirited but vain grab at an electorate that seems desperate not to elect Mitt Romney and only months ago appeared ready to make him the second Texas Governor-to-President in a row.
There have been two obstacles to the unambivalent embrace of Romney, neither of which he can do much about at this point. While his “business experience” obviously qualifies him to run Big Government into the ground, he is a “flip-flopper.” Fox News, in their relentless pursuit of the truth, has pushed this narrative incessantly: as a Senator and Governor of Massachusetts in the 90s, Romney had supported pro-choice and pro-gay rights legislation and “reversed” those positions when courting the national Republican electorate. His past as a social liberal, or appeaser of social liberals, ostensibly throws his commitment to social conservatism into doubt. Last night, when pressed on the issue of gay marriage, he reaffirmed that he doesn’t believe gays should be discriminated against but opposes gay marriage, once again looking very much like a man with one eye on the general election. The second obstacle, by contrast, was not the subject of any questions and has not even been an explicit talking point on Fox: Romney is a Mormon. Many of the voters for whom social conservatism is a paramount concern are evangelical Christians for whom Mormonism is in fact not “real Christianity.” The controversy surrounding the now painstakingly uncontroversial Romney has left the door open to a challenger who can both out-fascist him and provide hours of dramatic narrative on cable news, not least during these televised debates.
Until recently, Gingrich has occupied the periphery on Fox, whose anchors and pundits have repeatedly emphasized his “avuncular” status as someone who is both the “smartest guy in the room” and not particularly beloved by the electorate. After the demise of Herman Cain via outrage over a consensual extramarital affair, the Republican base turned somewhat inexplicably to a man whose own multiple high-profile affairs and four marriages should not logically make him the next-in-line to defend the sanctity of (monogamous/real Christian) marriage. Gingrich recently began leading in the polls, accomplishing something no other “anti-Romney” has so far – leading in the supposed Romney stronghold of New Hampshire, a key primary state. Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative newspaper of choice the National Review, echoed about a hundred other voices over the past year in calling solid debate performance Gingrich’s “bread and butter.” Both the chronological and geographical location of the debate, Baier said in the hours leading up to it, make it a make-or-break moment for Gingrich: Iowa, in which Romney has yet to lead in a single poll, is the first and perhaps most influential primary state. The prevailing assumption is that Iowa reflects the GOP electorate of the “heartland,” where traditional values trump insider status.
The joke, of course, is that Gingrich is possibly the most notoriously “insider” of all the candidates, a paragon of corporatism whose poll numbers began to drop recently when it was revealed that he had received somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 million in consulting fees from failed mortgage giant Freddie Mac in exchange for political leverage. When confronted at the debate, Gingrich claimed to have acted in the capacity of a historian addressing the issue of how to make more Americans able to own their own homes. Having spent the last several years decrying government sponsorship of enterprise in the form of “Fannie and Freddie,” who Republicans largely blame for the financial crisis in a valiant effort to contain the notion of a structural problem with unregulated capitalism, his comments are hypocritical even if his actions are not exactly sacrilege to the GOP.
The internal discussion about Gingrich, both in the debate proper and in the surrounding commentary, is emblematic of the role Fox plays in conservative discourse. The criticism of Gingrich has focused not on his profiteering, which is arguably not a dealbreaker for a party that worships at the altar of “job creators,” but on his apparently questionable conservative cred. Gingrich, well aware of the deification of Ronald Reagan in the contemporary GOP, mentions his work under Reagan in virtually every debate answer – yet voices on Fox are unsatisfied. On the O’Reilly Factor this week, “our friend” Glenn Beck called Gingrich a “big government progressive.” In an interview on Beck’s radio show, Gingrich, who has referred to himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican”, apparently admitted to agreeing with the anti-trust agenda of Roosevelt’s first term. Today on America Live, Lowry called Gingrich “erratic”, pointing to this PSA on climate change as evidence that he is the most likely to wake up one morning and do something crazy, like agree with Democrats.
At the debate, a question from Kelly posited a contradiction between Gingrich’s initial dismissal of the Ryan Medicare bloodletting as “right-wing social engineering” and subsequent support of it. Ryan himself basically called Gingrich a traitor for his dissent, telling Fox, “With allies like that, who needs the left?” What’s remarkable is that other than the fact of his support vs. lack of support, there isn’t actually anything contradictory here – the further privatization of already liberal (therefore minimal) social safety nets is right-wing social engineering, and it’s consistent with the Fox/GOP party line. But the conservative narrative being referenced and protected is one that denies that ideology, as opposed to “common sense,” informs either Republican policy or Fox News’s interpretation of reality. The sense in which Fox actively shapes discourse involves interpellation as a part of narrative-building: by bringing in Beck and Lowry, whose audiences may reflect somewhat different segments of the Republican electorate, Fox News is looking out for you, the viewer/voter. By calling Gingrich out on referring to “entitlement reform” by a substantially more sinister-sounding name, Kelly is vigilantly defending your intelligence and honor as a proud conservative who has every right to think social safety nets are an unnecessary burden on the economy, or that climate change is a hoax, or that anti-trust laws are not only effective (ha!) but oppressive, without being called a fascist. Fox even took (read: carefully selected) emailed questions from viewers for the moderators to pose, apparently verbatim, to the intended recipient. The viewer-supplied questions themselves were virtually indistinguishable in terms of phrasing from the rest, and were often further clarified by the moderators themselves. The message of interpellation is clear and precisely the opposite of what is actually occurring: Your voice is our voice, and we ask because you ask.
The most awe-inspiring example of Fox News’s ideological mechanism as a determinant of discourse is, of course, Ron Paul, who was (as usual) “confronted” with his own steadfast views. Paul’s economic policy was arguably to the right of the Republican party line until the Tea Party movement, but there is plenty about him that neither the Tea Party nor “establishment” Republicans find the least bit palatable. Limbaugh told Fox this week that if the election were held today, any of the candidates would beat Obama “in a landslide” – except for Paul. Hours before the debate, Wallace predicted that Paul winning the Iowa caucus would be the most disastrous result, because it would give party line Republicans the sense that “fringe groups” like libertarians can win in Iowa. The point, of course, is that even if he gets more votes than anyone else in the primary, he is illegitimate as an option for the GOP as a whole because all of the other candidates disagree more with him than with each other. Why? Paul is not a social conservative, and perhaps most importantly, his foreign policy is one of nonaggression, making it more radically anti-war than that of any prominent Democrat with the exception of Dennis Kucinich.
Paul’s assertion that the US and Israel have no right to use sanctions or force to coerce Iran into submission was greeted with loud cheers, yet felt strangely muted and marred by the loudest boos of the night, as if 19% of the audience had given him a standing ovation. The state was illuminated a moment later by Rick Santorum, who has spent the entire campaign trying to win over the Republican base by one-upping every bit of hawkish, homophobic, social Darwinist dogma spewed by the other candidates. Santorum dismissed Paul’s nonaggression as “weakness” and “isolationism”, asserting that a “weak” President unwilling to pull the literal trigger on Iran invites terrorism. Muslims/terrorists, as we have heard so often, “hate us for who we are,” and the momentary hesitation to bomb them into oblivion gives them license to kill freedom-loving Americans with impunity. Having spoken for the otherwise-unanimous neoconservative outlook, Santorum’s applause was the loudest of the night. If there were boos, they certainly weren’t audible. Paul replied with a bit of much-reviled insight that even the “weak” Obama and Democrats are too imperialistic to acknowledge, in public at least: They don’t attack us for our freedom, he asserted. They attack us “because we’re bombing them.” Today on Fox, as usual, the conservative intelligentsia claimed that Paul had once again gone “too far” and done himself an irrevocable electoral disservice. Unfortunately, they’re right.
Fox’s coverage has essentially “white-listed” Paul – despite public support, he has been delegitimized and marginalized in the media narrative while remaining nominally present and participant: He has consistently shown up within the top 3 candidates in almost every poll of primary voters shown on Fox, yet his name is almost never mentioned. Referring to government spending, as always his main critical framework, he says, “I don’t see Obama as the problem; he did not create this monster.” Not blaming Obama for x or y state of affairs is blatant violation of party line, both on Fox and in the GOP, but there is evidence that the audience (if not the electorate) finds Paul’s critiques of foreign policy less unequivocally toxic than the candidates, moderators, and pundits would suggest. The post-debate coverage featured a series of real-time poll graphics, which allowed viewers the chance to agree or disagree with a given statement: one such statement was, “Israel is the US’ number one ally.” The question is clearly posed within a neoconservative framework that views Israel not simply as a strategic partner in the War on Terror but also as a kindred spirit in our clash of civilizations. Yet viewers, when briefly “given a voice,” were almost evenly split. The result, which indicates a significantly less jingoistically pro-Israel audience than any imaginable cross-section of Congressional Democrats, remained onscreen for a fleeting minute before disappearing to wherever bullshit poll graphics go when they have worn out their welcome.
Several candidates were asked whether they accepted what is now referred to quite comically as “Reagan’s 11th Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Predictably, only Paul disagreed, expressing the view that internal criticism is healthy and safeguards against ideological complacency. There is in fact internal debate within the Republican Party, but it centers not on different policy but on slightly different strategies for achieving the same policy goals. Likewise, Fox represents debate between conservatives, or between conservatives and liberals, but the overarching narratives that are produced and reinforced are nothing less than the calculated staging of discourse, to chilling ideological effect.