Pictured: Concurrent's Bobby Winsler (left) with Rich Shumate (right) and two other UF Ph.D.s presenting a papers at a conference at the University of Oklahoma in 2015. Dr. Shumate wrote the book this column references.
Sixty years ago from this upcoming 2024 presidential election cycle marked one of the most lopsided electoral outcomes in American history. President Lyndon Baines Johnson defeated GOP challenger Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater with 61.1% of the popular vote. Goldwater carried just six states, losing 486-52 in the electoral college.
The margin was the biggest sweep since 1820 during the height of a period in American history known as the Era of Good Feelings. Sixth president James Monroe faced no challenger from the Federalist Party that opposed his Democratic-Republicans and he won every electoral college vote except for one contrarian, people who vote against their state’s popular votes are called faithless electors in politics, who voted for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams instead. There’s always one - even in the 1820s.
Despite this landslide loss in 1964 for the Republicans, the year did set in motion the modern conservative movement. There’s a common saying among GOP politicos that Barry Goldwater did win the presidency, it just took him 16 years to do it with the ascendency of Ronald Reagan.
The basis of Goldwater’s political philosophy that differed from more mainstream Republicans such as the Eisenhower administration who had served from 1952-1960 was to strengthen a domestic military with little intent of foreign intervention, drastically reduce all other spending and lastly call attention to perceived threats to Americanism. This last part included communism as previous administrations had but under Goldwater expanded to include the media.
Dr. Rich Shumate, one of my colleagues who entered and graduated from the University of Florida at the same time that I did wrote a book called “Barry Goldwater, Distrust in Media and Conservative Identify: the Perception of Liberal Bias in the News” and I have finally begun reading it a year after its publication.
The crossover with what we see in Citrus County presently is remarkable.
Perhaps his most poignant insight negates what the last several Concurrent columns have been about. Recently, I’ve been arguing that the Chronicle’s bias is not political, and to think there is liberal bias within our local paper is to miss the point. Dr. Shumate, himself a Republican, argued why that’s a futile distinction to make, “For when conservatives complain of ‘liberal bias,’ they are defining it with their understanding of that term; whether that definition can be empirically justified is irrelevant.”
To put it another way, what the bias is and what we call it can be two different things so trying to make the distinction as I have been is a moot point. He explains how this phenomenon seemingly in conflict with itself can occur, “The perception among conservatives that the news media have a liberal bias is a salient reality of American political life [...] liberal bias exists because conservatives believe it exists and they behave as if it exists.”
The problem our local media faces becomes evident here. Even if the Chronicle does not have a liberal bias, it will still face the label because the salient reality is the mere perception of one which clearly does exist locally.
What could the Chronicle do? Starting with Goldwater, Republicans feeling animosity toward the media became a source of strength for in-group identity. Social identity, as Dr. Shumate writes, can be such a strong bond that people will put the identity of the group before their own self-interest.
In this case, a Citrus conservative who values being so anti “liberal biased” Chronicle that he or she puts canceling their subscription to tell their friends they don’t read it above their own desire to stay informed about local issues. This may sound ridiculous, but anecdotally I have heard this as a reason given on more than one occasion.
The Chronicle’s social identity is to the community as the paper defines that term, which pertains particularly to those most involved in nonprofits and trade organizations. This is why its features are the Builders’ Buzz, the Chamber Connection and nonprofit spotlights.
This is a good formula that has served the paper well, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify excluding some type of identity shift given Citrus’ increasingly conservative demographics.
Not only would making adjustments to message strategy based on appealing to social identity be good for business, it would also be a truer reflection of the community the paper serves. Goldwater’s legacy is alive and well today, but journalism can beat him at his own game in recognizing the psychology behind what’s given it such staying power.