32 The Root of Political Polarization
This chapter is dedicated to my grandmother, the person who continues to give me the confidence that I can do anything I put my heart and mind to. This is only the beginning…
Keywords: Ideology, Tone, Emotions, Persuasion
What are your feelings as you dive into this chapter? Maybe you are excited; maybe you are annoyed. Perhaps you are anxious, concerned, or fearful. The list goes on and on. My point? Emotions are evoked by every single thing we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and do. Our feelings are merely inevitable. However, what is even more interesting is that we all can associate the same feelings to opposite reasons. This is particularly evident in the news, as we consume it from different platforms and different perspectives. As a Politics & International Affairs major at Wake Forest University, the news has always been something that fascinates me. How is it that politically motivated news sources such as Fox News and CNN can cover the exact same story, yet cause their targeted audiences to associate their emotions to such different factors?
Personally, I believe news anchors intentionally evoke emotions from their audience to be persuasive, and thus, cause their audience to return for more. By analyzing the contrast between the ways in which Fox News and CNN cover the same story, the Black Lives Matter protests from June of 2020, I show the role that emotions play in how we, as people, consume the news, and furthermore, its effect on our very own political ideology. Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson uses the same emotions (anger, fear, sadness) as CNN anchor Anderson Cooper when discussing the summer of 2020 BLM protests, however, the root of the emotion is what varies.
Following the death of George Floyd, the United States experienced massive protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement back in June of 2020. According to the New York Times, polls suggested that between fifteen and twenty six million people participated in the demonstrations (Buchanan et al.). However, despite the numbers, the movement became widely controversial and divisive among our nation. The ways in which two of the highest rated television personalities, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, cover the June protests exemplify the political divide that spurred from the opposing perspectives taken on the protests. With Fox News being considered a right-leaning channel, and CNN being a left-leaning channel, it is interesting to contrast the different narratives that the two channels portray, especially coming from their most noteworthy hosts. While there are countless segments from this time period, I specifically focus on those from June 1, 2020, the very beginning of the demonstrations.
Tucker Carlson’s segment “Our Leaders Dither as our Cities Burn” exemplifies anger, fear, and sadness. Throughout the segment, Carlson plays clips of people violently attacking one another, looting stores in major cities, taking over the streets of Washington D.C., setting fire to St. John’s Episcopal Church, and desecrating war memorials. These video clips themselves were not so much up for debate, as both CNN and Fox News recognized what was taking place. Instead, the reaction to the jaw-dropping tapes is the point of contention, creating a debate over who deserves the blame for the existence of such highly charged protests. While showing the tapes, Carlson exerts his anger toward what our country had been experiencing and how our leaders were responding. His disagreement with how protesters were acting is clear. He states, “violence and looting are not forms of political expression… it is an attack on the idea of politics” (“Tucker: Our leaders dither as our cities burn” 00:9:55 – 00:10:20). His frustrated tone and words of outrage are apparent throughout the segment. Furthermore, upon discussing the numerous violent acts that took place, Carlson shares, “In an environment like this, more violence could lead to a cascade of new tragedies to something far bigger and more destructive than we’ve seen so far” (“Tucker: Our leaders dither as our cities burn” 00:00:50 – 00:00:59). His distress sends an alarm to his audience, warning them that if we, as a country, continue down this destructive path, things will only get worse. Additionally, and perhaps above all, Carlson portrays sadness over what our country had been facing. He expresses his disappointment over our nation’s leaders, “No one in charge stood up to save America… this is how nations collapse, when no one in authority keeps order” (“Tucker: Our leaders dither as our cities burn” 00:00:18 – 00:00:40). He is clearly upset by the businesses that were ruined, the lives of civilians that had been taken, and the failure of leadership that was taking place. Overall, the violent protests that occurred throughout the summer of 2020 infuriated Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, sparking a sense of anger, fear, and sadness for his audience to absorb.
On the left side of the political spectrum, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper covers the Black Lives Matter protests quite differently than Carlson, with his segment “Anderson Cooper Calls Out Trump: Who’s the Thug Here?” This title holds significant meaning, as it portrays Cooper’s extreme dislike of President Trump. Although, like Carlson, he exemplifies anger, fear, and sadness, the source of such emotions is different for Cooper. Rather than focusing on the violence that was breaking out among the protests, Cooper turns his attention to the life of George Floyd and the role of police officers. Cooper states:
What the president doesn’t seem to know or care is that the vast majority of those protesting, they too are calling for law and order. A black man killed with four officers holding him down, a knee to the neck for more than 8 minutes, nearly 3 minutes for which he was no longer conscious for, that’s not law and order; that’s murder. (“Anderson Cooper calls out Trump: ‘Who’s the thug here?’” 00:04:34 – 00:04:55)
His angry tone is persistent and filled with fury as he recaps the lack of law and order that was seen in the case of George Floyd. Cooper goes on to say, “I’ve seen societies fall apart as a reporter. I’ve seen people dying in the streets while protesting. I’ve seen countries ripped apart by hate, and misinformation, and lies, and political demagogues, and racism. We can’t let that happen here” (“Anderson Cooper calls out Trump: ‘Who’s the thug here?’” 00:05:30 – 00:05:45). He illustrates fear for the prosperity and perseverance of the United States, warning his audience that we as witnesses cannot let our society fall apart. Additionally, he goes on to say, “The years change, the decades go by, and the sad truth remains” (“Anderson Cooper calls out Trump: ‘Who’s the thug here?’” 00:06:20 – 00:06:25). This captures the sadness Cooper is expressing over the events, and the disappointment he feels over what our country was fighting for. So, while Anderson Cooper uses the same emotions as Tucker Carlson when discussing the Black Lives Matter protests from June of 2020, the root of the emotion, again, is what changes.
While it may be the case that, for some viewers, other emotions stick out more so in these two clips, the two news anchors, without a doubt, display anger, fear, and sadness. Considering the opposite ends of the political spectrum that Fox News and CNN are on, one may assume that their use of emotions would be very different. However, interestingly, their use of emotions is almost identical. The only difference is the source of which they associate such emotions towards. Nevertheless, this difference is huge. By focusing their emotions on very different agents, Tucker Carlson and Anderson Cooper are able to stay in line with each of their respective political agendas. This is a prime example of the right attributing their anger, fear, and sadness to certain reasons, and the left blaming their anger, fear, and sadness on other reasons that are completely different. In doing so, news anchors are able to sharpen the political divide, and create an even more polarizing atmosphere. While it is understandable that the left and right tend to have different concerns, and thus, affiliate their emotions to different areas, this tends to be the root cause of political polarization.
My analysis of Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper exemplify that many people, across the entire political spectrum, experienced extremely similar emotions during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020: anger, fear, and sadness. Where we as people differentiate from one another rests on what exactly we attribute our feelings towards. This is quite apparent in the comparison of the Fox News and CNN segments, as Tucker Carlson and Anderson Cooper focus on the same three emotions for very different reasons. In an increasingly polarizing climate (particularly during COVID-19), this is where we all need to come together more. For the prosperity of our nation and the sake of our future, we must aim to see eye to eye on what we associate our feelings towards. This is a call for unity — something that our nation is in desperate need of, especially today.
“Anderson Cooper Calls out Trump: ‘Who’s the Thug Here?’” Youtube, uploaded by CNN, 1 June 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMrImA2DPy8
Buchanan, Larry, et al. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.” New York Times 3 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html.
“Tucker: Our leaders dither as our cities burn.” Youtube, uploaded by Fox News, 1 June 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3n5_D59lSjc