This week’s bombshell news that Tucker Carlson had been abruptly fired by Fox News has prompted me to conduct a thought experiment, one that imagines a kind of secular rapture event: If Fox News suddenly disappeared along with its most prominent host, what would America be like?
First, it’s important to understand just how big a footprint Carlson and Fox News have had in the television news market. According to the New York Times, Carlson’s show averaged 3.25 million viewers in the first quarter of this year, making it not only the largest draw on Fox News but one of the most-watched shows in all of cable news.
Recent public opinion surveys that ask about trust in TV news outlets confirm the strong presence of Fox News. According to PRRI’s 2022 American Values Survey, among the two-thirds of Americans who report consuming TV news, 17% say they most trust Fox News to give them accurate information about current events and politics—a number that is slightly larger than the proportion who most trust local TV news (15%), CNN (12%) or public television (12%). Only the combined broadcast news outlets (ABC, CBS, NBC) outpace Fox News as America’s most trusted TV news source. [Note: Here and below, all data come from the PRRI’s 2022 American Values Survey, a national representative survey of over 2,523 Americans conducted September 1-11, 2022. Full results and methodology are available here.]
The real power of Fox News, however, is in its disproportionate partisan reach. Among the two thirds of Republicans who consume television news, four in ten say they most trust Fox News—more than local TV news, broadcast news, CNN, public television, and MSNBC combined. Notably, there is no equivalent dominating presence among Democrats who consume television news; only 12% of Democrats, for example, say they most trust MSNBC.
For the purposes of our thought experiment, let’s imagine an alternative reality in which the Republicans who most trust Fox News and the ultra-conservative outlets spawned by its model disappear and are replaced by Republicans who most trust any other television news source (local TV news, broadcast news, CNN, public television, MSNBC, or some other outlet).
What would happen?
1. Republicans would dump Trump
In the arena of politics, the changes would be profound. On all things related to Donald Trump, the differences between Fox News Republicans (FR) and mainstream news Republicans (MR) are more than 30 percentage points. FR are twice as likely as MR to say the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump (74% vs. 37%), and they are nearly 40 percentage points more likely to say that the January 6th congressional hearings were politically motivated and a waste of time (92% vs. 54%). FR are also nearly 40 percentage points more likely than MR to hold a favorable view of Donald Trump (92% vs. 54%). Most notably, while nearly two thirds (64%) of FR say Trump should be the Republican nominee for president in 2024, only 28% of MR agree.
In other words, if the GOP’s Fox News constituents suddenly vanished, the party would reject the Big Lie that the election was stolen from Trump and would strongly oppose Trump being the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. There is also evidence that MR would back more moderate candidates across the board. A majority (51%) of MR, compared to only 23% of FR, say they would vote for a candidate from a new political party that is in between the Republicans and the Democrats.
2. The GOP would abandon efforts to restrict voter access and attempts at minority rule.
Mainstream News Republicans (MR) are significantly more dedicated than Fox News Republicans (FR) to the basic democratic principles of voter access and proportional representation.
- Nearly six in ten (58%) MR, compared to only 27% of FR, believe the U.S. Congress should pass a voting rights law to guarantee every citizen access to the ballot; by contrast, 72% of FR believe we should leave voting rights up to the states.
- Similarly, nearly two thirds (63%) of MR, compared to only one third (34%) of FR, believe that presidential elections should be decided by the popular vote rather than the electoral college. FR overwhelmingly back the electoral college system, which allows for the possibility that a shrinking group of white Christian voters can capture the presidency, even while losing the popular election by millions of votes.
3. The country would be far less divided by the culture war battles over abortion, LGBTQ rights, and public schools.
With the disappearance of Fox News Republicans (FR), the most divisive culture war issues would cease to function as political wedge issues.
Nearly seven in ten Fox News Republicans (FR) celebrated the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But this perspective is shared by less than half (44%) of Mainstream News Republicans (MR).
More than six in ten FR also favor both laws allowing small business owners to refuse to serve gay and lesbian people (66%) and laws preventing parents from allowing their child to receive medical care for a gender transition (61%). Less than half of MR agree with either of these views (44% and 47% respectively).
Most notably, there is a 41-point divide between the attitudes of FR and MR on the role of teachers and librarians in our public schools.
Two thirds of FR (67%) believe that “Public school teachers and librarians are indoctrinating our kids with inappropriate curriculum and books that wrongly portray America as a racist country.” MR, meanwhile, look like the rest of Americans on this issue, with only one quarter (26%) holding such conspiratorial views. Instead, 72% of MR affirm that public school teachers and librarians provide our kids with appropriate curriculum and books that teach the good and bad of American history.
4. No major political party in America would sanction the racist use of “Great Replacement Theory” rhetoric and the demonization of immigrants
Carlson infamously backed white supremacist conspiracy theories on his show, including so-called “Great Replacement theory.” According to analysis by the New York Times, Carlson referred to the idea that liberal elites are backing immigration to reshape the demographics of the electorate in their favor over 400 times on his show since 2016. Here’s a typical example from the opening monologue of Carlson’s show: “In order to win and maintain power, Democrats want to change the population of the country.”
This racist and dangerous message clearly resonates with Fox News Republicans (FR). More than six in ten (61%) FR, compared to less than half (47%) of MR, believe that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” This sentiment animated the violent protesters in Charlottesville (who chanted “Jews will not replace us!”) and it was cited by perpetrators of mass shootings such as those who targeted Hispanic shoppers in an El Paso Walmart and Black shoppers in a Buffalo grocery store.
Additionally, FR hold harsh views about immigrants that are far out of step with Americans overall and with MR. Strong majorities of FR believe immigrants increase crime in local communities (75%) and that those living in the U.S. illegally should be identified and deported (58%); less than half of MR disagree.
5. American democracy would be far less threatened by the violent politics of white Christian resentment and Christian nationalism
One of the most striking findings about Fox News Republicans (FR) are their perceptions of who is facing discrimination in the US today. Most FR reject the idea that Black people, Hispanic people, Asian people, Muslim people, women, gay and lesbian people, or transgender people face a lot of discrimination in the US today. In fact, the only two groups a majority of FR believe face a lot of discrimination in America today are Christians (55%) and white people (59%). This upside down, funhouse mirror version of reality—one that fuels a politics of resentment rooted in a vision of an embattled ethnoreligious minority—is not shared by most Mainstream News Republicans (MR).
These dangerous views are rooted in the fundamental premise of white Christian nationalism—one that accompanied the first European contact with Indigenous Peoples here: that European Christians had a divine mandate to occupy the land and subjugate its non-Christian inhabitants. Nearly six in ten (58%) FR believe believe that “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world,” a view shared by only 39% of MR and 31% of Americans.
This FR belief in America as a divinely ordained white Christian nation—a conviction that has blessed so much brutality in our history—is strongly linked to denial of structural racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, antisemitism, patriarchal views of gender roles, and belief in conspiracy theories such as Qanon. It is also fueling a kind of desperate, apocalyptic worldview that is more likely to support political violence. One third (33%) of FR, compared to 20% of MR, believe that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country.”
Most fundamentally, an America without Fox News would be more trusting and less fearful. The New York Times’ review of years of Carlson’s shows summarized his basic appeal this way: “Night after night, the host of the most-watched show in prime-time cable news uses a simple narrative to instill fear in his viewers: ‘They’ want to control and then destroy ‘you.’” Fomenting such divisions is a fundamentally anti-democratic and unpatriotic act that undermines our ability to realize our national motto, E Pluribus Unum—from many, one.
An America without Fox News would still have intense and even angry disagreements. But we would have a fighting chance to recover some basic civic virtues: a common faith that an electoral defeat is an opportunity to reorganize for the next election rather than a necessarily illegitimate outcome; a firm belief that legislative disagreements involve political opponents, not mortal enemies; and an unwavering conviction that “us” and “we”, rather than “they” versus “you”, are the principled pronouns of democracy.
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