In a recent column, Michael Barone commented on the closeness of recent elections and wondered what may be behind it. He concludes that it is a trend resulting from technology, which has made it easier to target undecided voters and those with soft allegiance to the other side. Yet he notes that close elections were the norm in the 19th century, long before computers and sophisticated polling came along.
I think a more important thing that has changed is the flow of information. In the 19th century, there were thousands and thousands of newspapers in this country and people often read several a day. Many were openly partisan and may have been formally aligned with a political party. People could easily find the facts and information that suited their philosophy.
But beginning around the turn of the century, this sort of openly partisan journalism fell out of favor. Journalism schools were established and reporters were taught to report the facts objectively. At the same time, economics compelled a long process of consolidation in the newspaper industry, to the point where just a handful of American cities have more than one paper today.
In this new atmosphere of professional journalism, with most reporters having college degrees in the subject, liberalism steadily became dominant. As a consequence, certain facts damaging to Democrats that once were easily available could no longer be found anywhere. Certain notions about truth and what was good and right in society that paralleled liberal political thinking became universal in every newsroom. In effect, the entire mass media became a de facto arm of the Democratic Party.
I believe that this restriction of information was behind the long era of Democratic success. Republican challengers to the Democratic worldview now had enormous difficulty getting their message out and obtaining the facts and information they needed to mount an effective challenge.
This was especially a problem at the congressional level, where it is prohibitively costly to use advertising to break through the liberal media filter. At the presidential level, it was much easier. Newspapers had to cover what the Republican candidate was saying, and he could get his message out. Also, political advertising was more effective and it was easier to raise the money for it. This explains why Republicans could take the White House from time to time, but had enormous difficulty getting control of Congress.
In the 1980s, the liberal media monopoly, which had sustained the Democrats in power for 50 years, began to break down. First, Ronald Reagan got rid of the "fairness doctrine." This rule required radio and television stations to offer equal time for contrary political viewpoints. The result was that they presented no political viewpoints at all, rather than waste valuable airtime providing equal time. This had no impact on liberals, who controlled the allegedly objective news departments, and mainly stifled conservatives.
Abolition of the fairness doctrine created talk radio, which quickly became dominated by conservative voices. To many conservatives, hearing someone like Rush Limbaugh for the first time was like water in the desert to a man dying of thirst. Although Limbaugh presents a lot of opinions, of course, he also presents a lot of news -- something liberals have never understood about his success.
Air America, the liberal radio network, is not Limbaugh's competitor; ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, Washington Post, Time and Newsweek are. Whatever else one thinks about these institutions, they are as one in terms of a liberal political philosophy. If you see one, you really don't need to see the others; they are all pretty much the same.
With an untapped conservative market just sitting there for the taking and the advent of cable and satellite television, Rupert Murdoch created Fox News and finally gave conservatives a news network where they weren't sneered at and denigrated, where conservative analysts and politicians shared airtime with the usual liberal talking heads, where facts and information could be found that the Dan Rathers of the major media would never allow on the air.
The last piece was the blossoming of the Internet, especially the blog phenomenon. As with talk radio, conservatives quickly dominated this new media outlet. In effect, they replaced newspapers for conservative readers. They could now finds facts and views wherever they might appear, anywhere in the world, conveniently linked by their favorite blogger.
Thus, there was finally a full-blown conservative alternative to the liberal media domination that had existed for decades. This, I believe, is behind the tightening of political races. Now, both sides can get their message out with equal effectiveness, thus returning politics to the 19th century norm, before liberals took de facto control of all major media, creating an era of liberal political domination that was a historical aberration.