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Tuesday, January 25, 2005
How Tories and Democrats are alike

John O'Sullivan asks if the Democrats can make a comeback, and identifies part of their problem as a media environment that creates an artificial sense of the political mainstream. So the party can advocate all manner of very liberal policies, from partial-birth abortions to affirmative racism in college admissions, but when the debates around these policies are reported by the news media, it is their opponents who are described as extreme.

This isolation from reality should be familiar to all who remember the thinking of Keith Joseph: again we see the proper distinction between a middle ground, which is the mid-point of political elites, and a common ground, which are the values of the median British voter. The trouble for those, like the Democrats, who rely on the former is that the latter is so very different.

You might say that there are two political spectrums in America today - an elite spectrum and a popular spectrum.

The elite spectrum has the Democrats in the center, the voters on the center-right, and the Republicans on the far right. Thus when some judicial appointee is discovered to have criticized racial preferences, he is described by the New York Times or CBS News as "out of the mainstream" even though about two thirds of the electorate is opposed to preferences too.

The same dismissive treatment is meted out to public figures who criticize the U.N., call for more defense spending, advocate "workfare," express pro-life views, oppose gay marriage, and so on. All are marginalized as extreme or wayward in the establishment media. As the example of racial preferences suggests, however, these judgments reflect elite opinion rather than the views of the American electorate.

When we look at the latter, a very different arrangement of political players begins to emerge. The popular spectrum of political opinion has the Democrats and liberal elites on the Left, the Republicans in the middle, and the voters out to their Right.

Immigration as an issue illustrates the popular spectrum to an almost embarrassingly exaggerated extent. About 70 percent of Americans (and only about one-fifth of American elites) think that mass immigration is a serious threat to the U.S. and needs to be curtailed. There are votes in cutting immigration levels - but you would never guess this from elite media coverage. And responding to this, both parties favor increasing immigration levels and reducing restrictions on entry.

What makes the Democrats' task of recovery so difficult is that the issues that most concern voters - namely, national security and moral issues - fit into the popular spectrum better (i.e., the Democrats and the voters are at opposite ends of the spectrum on such issues - with the GOP in the middle). But because the Democrats take their cue from elite institutions such as Hollywood and the media, they never realize their vulnerability. And every election defeat astonishes them.

What should immediately strike throughtful readers is how brilliantly almost every word describes the way our media influences our own political culture. Just as the American news media is tangibly alien to the cultural values of most Americans, so the British media likewise helps create a similar false political spectrum in this country on issues of immigration as on so much else. And just as the opposition party in the United States - so much a part of this false spectrum that few of them can see through it - remains confused about how to appeal to the majority, so the Conservatives are to some extent held hostage by a combination of anachronistic grandees and inexperienced 'modernisers' who think taking their cue from the media's political spectrum, rather than campaigning hard on exactly the 'right-wing' policies that poll after poll tells them are popular, is the key to electoral success.

As Michael Howard announced moderate proposals this week for closing loopholes in the immigration system, such as twenty-four hour security outside entry ports, many bloggers erupted in synthetic shock and genuine anger. One reader of this site emailed to say how extremely out of touch the 'blogosphere' is with the views of ordinary people on immigration. And indeed it is. But no more so than the media culture - though, significantly, not our exceptionally diverse and representative print media - through which much of our politics is framed.

It is fascinating that to some degree both the main opposition parties of the US and UK have had their politics confounded through coming to believe that the politics of the liberal elite are those of the majority of voters.

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