“I have a simple hypothesis,” writes economist Tyler Cowen. “No matter what the media tells you their job is, the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status.”
Cowen believes this explains why people “get so teed off” at the media:
The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close. You hold more of a grudge from the status slights than you get a positive and memorable charge from the status agreements.
In essence, (some) media is insulting your own personal status rankings all the time. You might even say the media is insulting you. Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered. It’s like they get to throw a media pie in your face.
In return you resent the media.
Cowen’s friend and fellow economist Arnold Kling made a similar claim earlier this summer about politics: “a major role of political ideology is to attempt to adjust the relative status of various groups.” One outcome of this is that,
… every adherent to an ideology seeks to elevate the status of those who share that ideology and to downgrade the status of those with different ideologies. That is why it matters that journalists and academics are overwhelmingly on the left. This means that the institutions of the mass media and higher education are inevitably and relentlessly going to seek to lower the status of conservatives.
Whose status do I want to see raised? That’s a question I’ve asked myself several times this summer. And as I’ve said before, if I were being perfectly candid I’d probably say my own (as most of us would). But if I were allowed a more idealistic answer I’d say that, as a Christian and in the context of my work for Acton, I want to raise the status of three groups: the poor, the vulnerable, and consumers.
From a biblical perspective, the first two groups seem to be obvious choices. Scripture contains numerous admonitions for us to not only recognize the poor and economically vulnerable but also to advance their concerns. In a way, the same could be said for consumers, though the biblical case for protecting consumers is less clear and direct.
I believe the nineteenth-century French journalist Frédéric Bastiat was making a biblically defensible point when he said,
consumption is the great end and purpose of political economy; that good and evil, morality and immorality, harmony and discord, everything finds its meaning in the consumer, for he represents mankind.
I’ve argued for that claim before, so I won’t rehash that here. Instead I want to return to the original point made by Cowen and Arnold and consider how it can help us understand our current predicament. While it may not explain everything, understanding the role of status lowering/raising explain quite a lot about many of the ongoing debates in American society—and why they tend to be so divisive.
Many conservatives (like me) have been frustrated by the media’s raising the status of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a way that is manufactured and sometimes dishonest. We also perceive the media’s raising the status of these candidates to be raising the status of issues that we we oppose, but that both candidates support, such as artificial restrictions on trade and wages.
Unfortunately, our natural reaction is to decry media bias or the flawed political process. While both claims may be true (I think they largely are) it doesn’t change anything to merely express our outrage. It also makes us appear that we are merely concerned about our own narrow interests. While we can expect the media and our political opponents to shrug off our concerns, we should be worried that we are making it easier to dismiss the concerns of those who we want to see rise in the status rankings (e.g., the poor, the vulnerable, and consumers).
Making it absolutely clear whose status we want to raise can help us avoid some of the confusion and misunderstandings that arise because of ideological differences. Of course it won’t be a cure-all. Understanding my status concerns doesn’t mean that populists and progressives will agree with us. And even if they agree it doesn’t even mean they’ll agree about what policies will benefit the groups whose status we want to raise. But by being honest about whose cause we are truly championing we can take a small but important step toward improving policy and political debates.
This understanding can also help us to understand, as Cowen notes in his post, the emotional element that leads us to make mistakes in our own political reasoning. Merely venting our frustration that the media lowers the status of groups we care about isn’t going to change much (or even make us feel better). Neither will shutting ourselves up in a bubble where we listen only to niche media outlets that get paid to tell us what we want to hear (that’s true whether the voice in our bubble is Sean Hannity or John Oliver).
When the media and political groups lower our status rankings we need to find a way to push back—and this is the key part—in a way that is effective. At a minimum, that requires making convincing arguments that are both based on evidence (i.e., that align with reality) and that are morally and emotionally persuasive. We have to aim at both the head and heart of our hearers by making our speech judicious and adding persuasiveness to our lips (Proverbs 16:23, ESV).
This side of heaven we may not be able to ensure that the “least shall be first” (Matthew 20:16). But by understanding the role of status in our terrestrial debates we can help to ensure the least aren’t always last.