Revisiting the Fox News Fallacy
It Seems To Be Alive and Well
Three months ago, I wrote a piece on the Fox News Fallacy. As I explained in that piece:
This is the idea that if Fox News (substitute here the conservative bête noire of your choice if you prefer) criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often. The problem is that an issue is not necessarily completely invalid just because Fox News mentions it. That depends on the issue. If there is something to the issue and persuadable voters have real concerns, you will not allay those concerns by embracing the Fox News Fallacy. In fact, you'll probably intensify them by giving such voters the impression that Democrats simply don't care about their concerns and will do nothing to address them. That will undermine the Democrats’ ability to respond to predictable attacks against their candidates….and raise the likelihood of a midterm debacle.
In light of the Democrats’ dreadful performance in last week’s election, I thought it would be useful to revisit this analysis and see if it still applies. In the original piece, I looked at three issues: crime, immigration and “critical race theory” (CRT). The latter is particularly apropos given the role of this issue in Republican Glenn Youngkin’s surprise defeat of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial contest.
Start with crime. Initially dismissed as simply an artifact of the Covid shutdown that was being vastly exaggerated by Fox News and the like for their nefarious purposes, it is now apparent that the spike in violent crime is quite real and that voters are very, very concerned about it. This very definitely includes black and Hispanic voters, as indicated by polling data and confirmed by Eric Adams’ support base in the New York mayoral contest. No wonder more and more Democratic politicians are running as fast as they can away from any hint of “defund the police”, the slogan beloved of the activist left that was actually put on the ballot in Minneapolis…and soundly defeated, especially by black voters. Consistent with this, a recent Pew poll found that black and Hispanic Democrats are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favor more police funding in their area.
And yet….Democrats still seem very far from former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s felicitous slogan: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Fox News may exaggerate but voters really do want law and order—done fairly and humanely, but law and order just the same. Democrats, with some exceptions like Eric Adams, still seem reluctant to highlight their commitment to cracking down on crime and criminals because that is something that, well, Fox News would say. Given this, it is no surprise Republicans, according to a recent NBC poll are favored over Democrats on the crime issue by 22 points.
Another example of the Fox News Fallacy, I argued in my piece, is the immigration issue. The Biden administration initially insisted that the surge at the border would go away on its own as the hot weather season arrived, a line most Democrats echoed, invoking the idea that the issue was more a Fox News talking point than a real problem.
Not so. It is now apparent that the perceived liberalization of the border regime under the Biden administration did indeed spur more migrants to try their luck at their border. An astonishing 1.7 million illegal crossings at the southern border have been recorded this year, the highest total since at least 1960, when the government first started keeping such records. In response, the administration has scrambled to deploy whatever tools it has at its disposal, including some left over from the Trump administration, to stem the tide. This has not sat well with immigration advocates, who recently staged a (virtual) walkout on top Biden officials to protest these administration policies.
These and other pressures, as well as the desire not to give in to Fox News talking points about a border crisis, has led most Democratic politicians to treat the topic of border security—and even the phrase—very gingerly. As a result, there is no clear Democratic plan for an immigration system that would both permit reasonable levels of legal immigration and provide the border security necessary to stem illegal immigration.
Voters have noticed. In the same NBC poll just cited, Republicans are favored over Democrats by 27 points on border security. And Biden has catastrophically low approval ratings on the immigration issue, currently averaging 30 percent approval versus 60 percent disapproval.
As I have previously noted, Democrats would do well to remember that public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security. The uncomfortable fact is that, while this issue is being exploited by Fox News, it is still a very real problem Democrats need to address.
Finally, we come to critical race theory or CRT, perhaps the best and most recently consequential example of the Fox News Fallacy. This is a term originating in academic legal theory that has been shorthanded by the right as a catch-all for the intrusion of race essentialism into teacher training, school curricula and the like. The standard Democratic comeback to criticism about CRT in the schools is simply to assert that any voters, including parents, who are concerned about CRT are manipulated by Fox News and are opposing benign pedagogical practices like teaching about slavery, Jim Crow, the Tulsa race massacre, redlining and so on. The not so subtle implication is that such voters are racists since who else would be opposed to simply teaching such historical facts?
But voters’ worries about CRT cannot be bludgeoned away so easily by saying CRT doesn’t really exit in the schools and parents just don't want their kids taught about slavery. Parents are far more worried about their children being arrayed into hierarchies of privilege and oppression and encouraged to see everything through a racial lens—whatever the theory is called—than they are concerned with their children learning about historical incidents and practices of racism.
We saw this CRT version of the Fox News Fallacy play out in real time in the Virginia gubernatorial race. Let us review what happened there.
McAuliffe lost this race in a heavily blue-trending state where Biden beat Trump by 10 points. This was more than a merely “thermostatic” reaction against the party currently controlling the federal government, suggesting the Democrats may have strayed too far away from the political center, particularly on cultural issues. The latter is the judgment of many Democrats, particularly on the moderate end of the party. Legendary Democratic strategist James Carville went so far as to suggest that “Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something.”
But on the progressive end of the party the preferred interpretation is that the party has not been too far left on these issues but rather not left enough. If candidates had been more strenuously progressive then a tsunami of turnout from the progressive base would have overwhelmed all the other negative trends from the election. So says Democratic House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, more generally known as AOC:
I think that the [Virginia] results show the limits of trying to run a fully 100% super moderated campaign that does not excite speak to or energize a progressive base. And frankly, we weren't even really invited to contribute on that race.
Very nice to know AOC would have made her help available, if asked. One may wonder however how much insight she could have offered given that she hails from a House district that is 25 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole and in which her beloved French bulldog could get elected to Congress should he secure the Democratic nomination. Competitive elections in competitive states are a somewhat tougher proposition than New York’s 14th Congressional district.
But we should not be surprised that this diagnosis is the one that’s offered. For a certain type of progressive this is always the explanation offered for defeat. Indeed, no myth is stronger in progressive circles than the magical, wonderworking powers of voter turnout. It’s become a sort of pixie dust that you sprinkle over your strenuously progressive positions to ward off any suggestion that they might turn off voters.
We can certainly see this in progressive analyses of the Virginia defeat. Yet the 2021 gubernatorial contest was actually a very high turnout election. Under the state’s newly liberalized voting laws, the number of votes cast in this governor’s race was 25 percent higher than in any previous race. Turnout was strong everywhere, including in important Democratic areas like northern Virginia, black precincts and college towns, but also surged in redder areas of the state.
This reveals the logical flaw in progressive Democrats’ high turnout strategy. The implicit assumption of these advocates is that if they polarize an election by highlighting progressive issues, “their” nonvoters will show up at the polls, but none of the nonvoters from the other side will. But it is truly magical thinking to believe that, in a highly polarized situation, only your side gets to increase turnout. And if the other side turns out in droves, you might not like the results. As in Virginia, 2021.
Moreover, this strategy leaves out the very important role of persuasion. A significant number of voters really do switch from election to election and we saw that in Virginia in 2021. You simply cannot explain how Virginia voters went from +10 for Joe Biden in 2020 to +2 for Glenn Youngkin this year without many voters switching parties between the two elections, in this case independents, soft Democratic partisans, moderates and so on.
These shifts among persuadable voters manifested themselves within many areas and groups. Loudoun County, where the struggle was particularly fierce around education issues, saw the Democratic advantage drop from +25 in 2020 to +11 this year. According to the AP-NORC VoteCast survey (more reliable than the highly flawed exit polls), McAuliffe may actually have lost the Latino vote and also lost ground among black and “other race’ (chiefly Asian) voters. This deterioration of nonwhite support also can be seen in analysis of precinct-level results.
The VoteCast survey also indicates an 11 margin point shift against the Democrats relative to 2020 among white college graduate voters, the prototypical suburban demographic, where Democrats have made tremendous progress in recent years. Precinct-level analysis indicates that McAuliffe may have underperformed even more in areas dominated by these voters than in white working class areas.
One wonders how AOC’s more progressive than thou approach would have turned aside these trends. On education, which loomed so large in the Virginia race, McAuliffe certainly did attack Youngkin for objecting to the intrusion of race-essentialist and anti-meritocratic ideology (shorthanded, as noted, by the CRT term) into schools. Indeed, McAuliffe robotically repeated the standard progressive talking point that CRT in a narrow technical sense, since it was originally an obscure legal doctrine, is not actually taught in Virginia schools and that therefore any reference to it or to problems with which it is associated was simply a “racist dog whistle” by Youngkin to racist Virginia voters who don’t want their kids to learn about slavery and the dark side of American history.
There is no finer example of the Fox News Fallacy than this. And, as one might have predicted, Virginia voters didn’t find McAuliffe’s point that their third-graders were not being assigned law review articles particularly compelling. But they did find Youngkin’s broader point reasonable, as he expressed it in his final rally in Loudoun County:
We all know education starts with curriculum. We will teach all history, the good and the bad. America has fabulous chapters and it’s the greatest country in the world, but we also have some abhorrent chapters in our history, we must teach them. We can’t know where we are going if we don’t know where we came from.
But let me be clear: what we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through the lens of race, where we divide them into buckets; one group’s an oppressor and another group is the victim; and we pitch them against each other … We know it’s not right. We know in our hearts it’s wrong. We are all created equal and we’re trying so hard to live up to those immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr., who implored us to be better than we are; to judge one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin.
This sounds like vintage Barack Obama not David Duke. Would AOC have had McAuliffe attack this Obama-style rhetoric, quoting the words of Martin Luther King (and the voters that take them seriously) even more directly than he did? And if he had, would it have been effective? The question answers itself.
This underscores a point I have made previously. Democrats need to wean themselves away from the Fox News Fallacy as a generic response to conservative attacks. Democrats would be well-advised to focus instead on an inclusive nationalism that emphasizes what Americans have in common and their right not just to economic prosperity but to public safety, secure borders and a world-class but non-ideological education for their children. That’s much more likely to work than simply denying a lot of these issues are problems.
In addition, Democrats should probably consider actively dissociating themselves from some of the more unpalatable and unpopular cultural ideas pushed by the left of the party, which are by no means confined to CRT. As Matt Yglesias has noted:
[I]t wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Biden to be seen as at odds with leftist elements in his own party.
I’m fairly certain, for example, that Biden does not personally agree with diversity consultant Tema Okun that individualism, objectivity and worship of the written word are distinctive characteristics of “white supremacy culture.” But her work has been used for training in public school systems from New York City to Seattle and is a recommended resource of the National Education Association.
Biden would not need to accept the idea that “critical race theory” is an anti-American plot to simply state that he thinks some nutty stuff is being done in some places in the name of equity. If he is worried about optics, he’s got a Black vice president and a Hispanic education secretary who could back him up on the basic need for children of all races to learn to read and write. And they could talk about the importance of his preschool initiatives to accomplish that.
Sounds good to me. And for more productive than continuing to indulge the Fox News Fallacy.