The man who used his primetime TV spot to tout testicle tanning has now determined that television discourse is dumb. Tucker Carlson, in his first statement since being fired by Fox News, tweeted out a video message on Wednesday claiming he’s only just realized how “unbelievably stupid most of the debates you see on television are.”
Funny this occurred to him in the two days since he got canned and not at any point in his decades-long TV career.
Carlson goes on to describe a larger problem, one he will doubtless rectify in the future:
The undeniably big topics, the ones that will define our future, get virtually no discussion at all. War, civil liberties, emerging science, demographic change, corporate power, natural resources—when was the last time you heard a legitimate debate about any of those issues? It’s been a long time. Debates like that are not permitted in American media. Both political parties and their donors have reached consensus on what benefits them, and they actively collude to shut down any conversation about it. Suddenly, the Unites States looks very much like a one-party state.
Populist boilerplate like this has always been a comfort to those consumed by a sense of failure. If the wealthy and powerful are keeping you ignorant for profit, blame your lot on them. Persecution peddling is Carlson’s métier. (Never mind that his own net worth is somewhere in the eight or nine figures or that he’s spent his adult life wedded to “corporate power.”) Nonetheless, he’s got one thing right here: There is little “legitimate debate” about vital issues in American life. But he has the reasons perfectly backwards. We don’t live in a one-party state. We live in fortified partisan silos. Media corporations merely cater to the tastes of siloed viewers.
We’ve become so tribal in our political affiliations that we view good-faith debate as a moral perversion. Americans who are deeply entrenched on any of the issues that Carlson lists feel more and more that there’s nothing to debate. They’re simply on the side of the right and the just. Those who disagree with them aren’t wrong but monstrous. And you don’t persuade monsters; you slay them.
Like most of our social plagues, this one started online. Sometime in 2012, soon after Joe Biden leaked that Barack Obama was in favor of same-sex marriage, liberals on social media put their conservative acquaintances on notice: If you didn’t believe in gay marriage, you’d be “unfriended.” Then they made good on their warning. The unfriending never stopped, and it spilled into the real world. A 2020 Pew Poll found that 60 percent of liberal Democrats had stopped talking to someone because of something they said. Forty-five percent of conservative Republicans had done the same.
Here’s the part that’s most relevant. According to the same poll, “The closer people follow political and election news, the more likely they are to say they have stopped talking to someone about it.” In other words, the most committed news consumers are done with good-faith debate. They want monster-slaying. Which is exactly what you got every evening on Tucker Carlson Tonight. In fact, it’s exactly what you get in his recent video message. His complaint about a one-party state is a sop to fans who want to hear more about how the establishment is playing them for suckers. That’s their silo, and Carlson is servicing it.
In 2004, Jon Stewart went on CNN’s Crossfire, the country’s premier political debate show, and attacked the format as clownish and phony. “You’re doing theater when you should be doing debate,” he said to the co-host. “You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.” The co-host was Tucker Carlson, and the segment cast him into a cultural wilderness where he remained for years. Carlson, unemployed once again, is grasping to imitate the man who humiliated him almost 20 years ago. And like Stewart, who has made a post-comedy career of bullying political adversaries, Carlson doesn’t really want debate. He wants his silo to know he’ll be back to give them more of the same.