On Monday, I was having a conversation with Pavithra Suryanarayan, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, about what fuels far-right populism, when she suddenly stopped, midsentence, and gasped.
She had just seen a news alert, she told me: the TV host Tucker Carlson had been fired from Fox News.
The moment was an object lesson in the bigger point that she hammered home in our conversation: that to understand the rise of far-right populist politicians around the world, we need to think about institutions that did not check them.
Much of Suryanaryan’s work has focused on the reasons that expanding democratic rights often produces a political backlash from groups that fear losing their status and privileges in a more equal society. (Such as the response of White Southerners in the United States during the Civil Rights era, for instance, and members of the Brahmin caste in India after the government instituted affirmative action in the 1990s.) Disaffected groups can potentially make up willing constituencies for populist politicians and their allies in the media, and Suryanarayan cited several right-wing examples of recent years: Carlson and Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
But, Suryanarayan said, political supply and demand aren’t enough on their own, adding that the other crucial ingredient is institutions’ willingness to allow extreme, anti-establishment candidates, or the failure to keep them out. Normally, she said, mainstream parties “keep an eye on the winnable middle,” which means avoiding candidates who could alienate those voters. So when populists break through, that’s often as much a sign of institutional weakness as of the candidates’ strength.
“What should have happened were robust party institutions keeping these impulses at bay,” she said. “They didn’t do their one job, which is to keep the extreme out of institutions.”
Sometimes that happens because a political crisis has weakened or discredited mainstream parties. In Brazil, for instance, the Operation Carwash corruption scandal ensnared much of the country’s political elite, shattering public trust in politicians and helping to pave the way for Bolsonaro’s rise.
But sometimes the weakness sets in more gradually. In the United States, the Republican Party was in an important respect undermined by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, political scientists say. The court’s ruling, that the government may not ban political spending by corporations, had the effect of steering money to PACs rather than the party itself. And the legacy of the Iraq war, along with the party’s defeats in national elections in 2008 and 2012, contributed to a leadership collapse.
“There was an intellectual vacuum when Bush left office,” Vanessa Williamson, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who co-authored a book on the Tea Party, told me in a 2016 interview. That vacuum was partly filled by Fox News, which became a de facto agenda-setter for the American right.
And while strong parties can convince weaker candidates to drop out, in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, multiple candidates persisted in their campaigns, which helped split the electorate and allowed Trump to win early contests with a minority of votes. And the party had few voices of authority to oppose Trump when he surged ahead in the primary race. “You’ve got some Fox News anchors you can choose from, or you’ve got Mitt Romney,” Williamson said in 2016.
But while Fox News could reach large audiences, television news anchors and personalities weren’t, and aren’t, party officials. Fox was in the business of holding audiences’ attention, not governing.
So the network used its institutional power to keep Carlson’s audience, tolerating broadcasts in which he defended the Capitol rioters of Jan. 6 and adopted the rhetorical tropes of white nationalists and borrowed from a racist conspiracy theory. The network that gave him a platform, paid his salary, and reaped the profits he generated.
It is at this point not clear why exactly Fox fired him this week, but the sudden decision is a reminder that the network could have done so much earlier, and didn’t.
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