Moving from Northern California to Kansas City, Missouri, I wondered if I would find myself surrounded by conservatives. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the people we have gotten to know are in fact not all that different from our friends in the Bay Area -- tolerant, reasonable, and moderate with a variety of views. What is strikingly different in the heartland is what we hear when we turn on the radio.
In the Bay Area, when I wanted news I could find NPR most of the time or other versions of mainstream media that distinguish reporting from opinion, present substantive discussions with more than one viewpoint, and try to get the facts right. NPR exists here too, but the hours are limited and the primary alternative is pure ideology.
On Sunday, for example, while running errands, I turned on a random talk show and heard a U.S. Senator from Nebraska railing about how the Democrats were promoting their "liberal" agenda instead of addressing the nation's employment problems. The right-wing host ("conservative" would be too moderate) complimented him as one of the "good guys." There was no mention of the fact that most economists believe that the best way to address employment is through further stimulus efforts that this Senator opposes, that tax cuts for the wealthy are among the least effective ways to promote employment, that the Democratic spending measures the Senator denounced include the extension of unemployment benefits, or that no one believes that either the Democratic or Republican proposals before Congress represent the best way to address the employment issue. There was no serious discussion of these issues because there was no serious discussion at all. The conversation largely consisted of epithets such as "liberals" or a later reference to the "homosexual agenda," which apparently means the desire of gays and lesbians for an end to discrimination. Partisan generalizations were applauded rather than challenged.
Another day, in a similar effort to find some news, I heard a denunciation of Glenn Beck. I was intrigued. It turned out that I had stumbled on a Christian talk show. This speaker was appalled that Beck, a Mormon, was claiming the mantle of Christian leadership. He explained at some length how fraudulent Beck's claim to be a Christian was while the talk show host sympathetically encouraged him. Toward the end of his denunciation, the speaker explained that he was a former Mormon who had been unable to live up to Mormon expectations of proper behavior. Only when he found Jesus Christ and a religion that emphasized forgiveness and redemption had he found personal peace. Beck's problem was apparently that he turned to the wrong religion to strengthen his own fight against alcoholism, threatening the speaker's conviction that the Christianity he knew had a monopoly on the truth.
Nothing like this exists on the left. Believe me, I've tried to find it. I have spent hours driving through stretches of California, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Florida and Western New York without finding a single liberal voice or more than an occasional centrist one. In another era, I might have found some reference to those advocating experimentation with LSD, counterproductive proposals for rent control, or advocates of unilateral disarmament. Today, when the Republicans try to point to liberal extremists they come up with Al Sharpton, the African American minister who generates publicity by organizing protests against racism, or a fictional version of Barak Obama as a Muslim socialist. Democrats, in contrast, have only to let the camera roll on the influential members of Congress who deny the existence of global warming, embrace creationism, or claim that unemployment benefits in the middle of the recession encourage idleness to find extremists. The problem is that only Rachel Maddow and Comedy Central highlight the absurdities.
Progressives have a right to be disappointed that President Obama has failed to stand up to the partisans in Congress who have tried to hold the country hostage to their efforts to secure tax cuts for the wealthy. The problem they have, however, is that if the president actually did call the Republican's bluff, a substantial part of the country would only hear that Democrats were raising their taxes to pay for liberal programs. The mainstream media is dead in most of the country, and when propaganda replaces journalism, a good deal of the truth dies with it.
June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is co-author of Red Families v. Blue Families.