Regular readers might surmise that I’m a fan of MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes Saturday and Sunday morning talk show. You might assume I watch because I (mostly) share the host’s liberal views. I do, but that’s not why I tune in. I watch because the show provides a rare opportunity to hear people of diverse views speaking substance–and actually learn from and listen to each other across various political and ideological divides.
Not coincidentally, few guests arrive under the vague identifications “Democratic strategist” or “Republican strategist” to parrot partisan talking points. Many guests are left-liberals or policy experts such as Donald Berwick talking about health reform, climate change, immigration, voter ID laws, gay marriage, and other concerns. Yet the show features others–for example Avik Roy, Reihan Salam, and Josh Barro–who reside in different places on the ideological spectrum. Moreover, serious conservatives and libertarians appear as more than weak rhetorical foils for the host. They are allowed to speak their piece, and (often) to keep the host or other guests honest when they get sloppy or caricature opposing views.
Up with Chris Hayes is recognizably liberal in the choice of topics and in various other ways. If you’re liberal, you’ll find ideologically congenial experts to provide reliable information on the fine print on many issues. If you’re moderate or conservative, you’ll see what smart liberal activists and policy wonks believe about key issues, and what the important counterarguments are likely to be. I’m not sure this model would prove commercially viable five times a week in prime time. It fills a critical void Sunday morning.
What strikes me is the dearth of conservative-leaning shows built on the same model. Most FOX discussion shows are virtually unwatchable—not because they’re conservative, but because they offer so little intellectual nutrition to their core audience. Sticking to our home topic of health policy, legitimate conservative experts such as James Capretta and Tevi Troy are drowned out by less honest or reputable figures such as Betsy McCaughey and Dick Morris. The typical conservative FOX viewer is thus fed Pravda-style misleading information about what the Affordable Care Act really entails. The typical non-conservative FOX viewer—to the extent non-conservatives tune in at all—have no way of knowing what reputable Republican or conservative policy analysts are really thinking, or, indeed, who these experts really are.
From a stark political perspective, this television wonk-gap may not have much mattered since 2008. The core partisan mission of FOX news was to mobilize, by any means necessary, political opposition to the Obama administration. When you’re counterpunching from an ideologically narrow opposition perspective, you don’t have the same imperative to form coalitions or to make the numbers add up. On the other hand, FOX’s approach certainly played a role in forcing GOP primary candidates further to the right, and thus nudged Governor Romney further away from the general election median voter.
Leading up to 2016, though, the costs of this model may be more apparent. Republicans are seeking to rethink and to rebrand party positions on matters ranging from immigration to universal health coverage. At some point, Republicans will recapture the presidency and enjoy a short political window during which they might enact their own core priorities into law. The substance will actually matter. So will the rhetorical framing and policy conversation Republicans cultivate in upcoming years.
A high-quality talk show is hardly Republicans’ most important unchecked box here. Yet its absence remains telling.
One more thing. If FOX sought to fill this void, I promise they would win at least one new viewer. And FOX—if you need a host, I’m available.