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Media, Politics, Republicans

On Roger Ailes and Party Control of American Government

I much enjoyed Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s essay in the New Yorker on the parallels between William Randolph Hearst and Roger Ailes, but her sweeping conclusion that Ailes is less “kingmaker” than “entertainer” and “boogeyman” rests on rather shaky ground, empirically speaking. Lepore notes:

Hearst died in 1951. Between 1952 and 1988, an era marked by the Fairness Doctrine (and, according to conservatives, a liberal media), Republicans won seven out of ten Presidential elections. Between 1988 and 2012, during the ascendancy of conservative media, Republicans won only three out of seven Presidential elections. When Mitt Romney lost, Ailes blamed the Party. “The G.O.P. couldn’t organize a one-car funeral,” he said. Another explanation is that the conservative media drove the Party into a graveyard.

Anyone familiar with the last 60 years of American politics knows that this is an extremely selective reading of history. Putting aside whether it makes any sense really to use the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine—whose effects on public discourse have been long overstated—as a dividing line, Lepore’s broader point about Republican electoral failures in the Ailes era is simply wrong. In the simple chart below, I map party control of the presidency, the Senate, and the House between 1952 to 2012.

Party_Control

Control of the U.S. government (1952-2012 elections). Boxes are shaded red for Republicans, blue for Democrats. Leadership in the Senate was closely divided and changed hands during the 83rd and 107th Congress.

While it is true that Republicans won 7 out of 10 presidential contests in the pre-Clinton (and pre-Fox) era, the distribution of party control of the executive branch is much more evenly divided than this statistic implies. Moreover, focusing only on the presidency obscures just how extensive Democratic control of Congress was during this period. Compared to this era of exile, Republicans have enjoyed a clear national resurgence. There are of course a number of reasons for this resurgence that have nothing to do with conservative media or Ailes being at the helm. But let’s be clear, the Party has not been driven into any a political graveyard. Far from it.

Lepore may well be on to something when she argues that conservative media has at times hindered the Party more than helped it—particularly in recent elections—but this dynamic may have more to do with shifting the nature of the parties (which candidates win primaries, which policy issues get championed, which scandals we fixate on) than strictly who sits in the oval office. And in that sense, I’m not so sure Ailes’ critics are so wrong in assessing his power.

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