Be wary of anyone who views America’s political environment through the narrow and distorted lenses of Fox News and MSNBC, two cable channels at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. When you watch those channels (and many political leaders, operatives, and commentators do), you come away thinking that the country is irrevocably polarized and can’t reach agreement on much of anything that matters. Not so.
It is true that we have become more polarized over the past 20 years and that many Republicans and Democrats approach politics like a dodge-ball fight: They line up with their backs against the walls on opposite sides of a gym, flinging balls harder and harder at each other, afraid to venture to the center. But they don’t represent the majority of citizens who are in the middle and feel as though neither party stands for them.
You get a better sense of what these people are thinking if you widen the lens of your television viewing to include other channels and shows. Along the way, you might also come across some clues about what types of political leaders Americans are looking for.
The most popular shows on Fox News and MSNBC draw a combined viewership of about 5 million people. Not 50 million people, 5 million! More people watch reruns of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! than watch Fox News and MSNBC combined. Keep in mind that 131 million people voted in 2008 and 140 million are likely to vote in 2012, so these two channels attract less than 4 percent of the voting group for the presidential general election. Even if you consider just the people who participated in party primaries and caucuses in 2008, Fox News and MSNBC regularly reach only 10 percent of this smaller, more ideological pool.
We have all heard about the woes of network news shows compared with Fox News and MSNBC. Even so, the nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC attract more than 25 million viewers combined, and the three networks’ morning shows have a total of nearly 14 million viewers. (Full disclosure: I have a contract with ABC to appear as an analyst on some of its news shows.) In addition, the hour-long broadcast of 60 Minutes on Sunday evening attracts more than 15 million viewers regularly.
In other words, the nonpolarizing broadcast news platforms still attract a much bigger audience, by far, than the two cable news outlets.
Now let’s widen the lens even more and look at popular entertainment on television over the past few decades and see what it tells us about ourselves, our values, and our choice of leaders.
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, Dallas and The Dukes of Hazzard were very popular. Both shows represented an ethic and ethos emanating from the South and West, which Reagan captured brilliantly in his manner and communication.
As Bill Clinton came on the scene in 1992, two of the emerging popular programs were Roseanne and Home Improvement. These shows described middle-class life in the United States and reflected the values, desires, and needs of many average Americans. Clinton was better attuned to them than any other modern politician.
In the aftermath of 9/11 and heading into the 2004 presidential election year, a rising show was the phenomenon known as American Idol—a competition featuring regular people succeeding beyond anyone’s dreams and standing strong in the face of criticism. George W. Bush did very well in reflecting this sentiment.
As the open election of 2008 began to play out, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was highly popular. This show embodied the belief that our hopes can become realities and that we are supposed to lend a hand to fellow citizens in need. Thus, we had the election of Barack Obama, whose campaign speeches sounded like they could have been written by the producers of that program.
Today, the popular shows are Modern Family and Glee, which represent a conviction that we can come together as a family and succeed, despite our disagreements, and that the small communities in our lives are what matter most. Will one of the rising leaders in the Republican Party embody this message, or will the GOP candidates gravitate toward the tiny segment that watches Fox News and allow President Obama to capture this sentiment?
Popular TV shows don’t fit perfectly into our political history and understanding, and I am sure some people will question whether there’s much of a connection at all. But my experience is that we want in our political leaders many of the same things we want in our television shows. Prime-time programs with large audiences give us a much better sense of the country than we get from the divisive discussion on channels that only a tiny portion of Americans watch.
This article appears in the March 5, 2011, edition of National Journal.