It’s an odd place to start, but let’s start here since this data is new. What’s below is a chart showing how members of each political party view the ideological slant of the both their party and the political opposition. It’s from new analysis by Pew Research Center.
The first thing you’ll notice is that each party’s ideology is viewed as more extreme by members of the opposing party than by members of the party itself. In other words, Democrats think the GOP is more ideologically extreme than Republicans do, and vice versa.
Well, that was probably the second thing you noticed. The first thing you probably noticed is that more than half of Republicans think that Democratic Party holds an extremely liberal ideology, as extreme a liberal ideology as possible. Only about a third of Democrats believe that the Republican Party holds the most extreme conservative position.
This finding fits a pattern. Pew has been tracking the growth in political polarization for years, a central part of which is growing distaste by members of one political party for the other. In part that’s because partisan ideologies have grown more extreme over time. In part it’s because Americans are increasingly geographically and politically segregated. About half of Hillary Clinton’s supporters in 2016 didn’t have any close friends who supported Donald Trump. The result is that partisans tend to see the other party as actively harmful to the country.
Keep that context in mind.
On Wednesday, Breitbart published video leaked from Google showing a company meeting shortly after the 2016 election. In the video, Google executives express frustration at President Trump’s victory and, at various points over the hour-long discussion, describe support for Trump in various unflattering contexts.
Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, highlighted the Breitbart report.
Parscale’s framing of the Google meeting echoes a common argument made among conservatives of late: Technology companies, run by liberals, are actively working to undermine conservatives. Trump himself complained that Google has anti-conservative bias in its search results. He also joined the uproar over how Twitter was allegedly burying search results for some prominent conservatives, a process that the right referred to as “shadow banning.” During the campaign, there was frustration that conservative news outlets were being deliberately boxed out of Facebook’s trending topics tool. More recently, Facebook was criticized for burying traffic for the conservative commentators Diamond and Silk, frequent guests at Trump’s rallies.
All of these are indicative, the argument goes, of companies led by California liberals taking active steps to undermine conservative voices. Except that in none of the cases presented above is there evidence that conservatives were being unfairly systemically targeted.
The Google search results complaint Trump made was that regular news sites came up in searches for “Trump news” more than conservative sites. The “shadow ban” wasn’t a ban at all but an effort by Twitter to reduce online hostility among users of all political persuasions. Facebook’s trending topics tool was filtering out sites that often presented misinformation; when they switched to an algorithm to determine what appeared, fake news quickly became prevalent. Diamond and Silk’s traffic suffered along with that of thousands of other content creators, thanks to a change in Facebook’s prioritization. A determination by site moderators that they were “unsafe” — a concrete misstep — was an error on the part of Facebook admitted by the company.
It’s not new that political partisans would criticize a media institution to allege bias against them. The mainstream media have been a target of criticism that it is biased on behalf of liberals for decades, in part because of legitimate concern about outlets' reporting and in part to try to preemptively guide coverage to a position more hospitable to conservatives. Critiques predicated on making insincere claims to affect future behavior is referred to as “working the referees.” Social media companies aren’t as used to this tactic.
But what’s particularly interesting about the Google video posted by Breitbart is that Parscale’s representation of its contents is inaccurate. There’s no discussion of the company shaping search results to affect users' values. The video shows senior executives expressing frustration about Trump’s victory, certainly, but as Gizmodo notes, several of those executives are themselves immigrants. There’s no discussion about the company actively working to squelch opposing viewpoints through its technology. That’s simply presented by Parscale as an almost natural extension of the political views expressed by the company executives.
In other words, Parscale seems to be assuming (or is at least suggesting) that the executives' views alone are evidence that the tools are biased against their political opponents.
We’ve seen a lot of this recently. We see it each time Trump tweets about the “angry Democrats” involved in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump’s implying that, because these attorneys have at some point given money to Democrats, they cannot be relied upon to act fairly in carrying out their duties for Mueller. (That Mueller is a Republican is not generally mentioned by Trump.)
That same argument extends to others in the Department of Justice: Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and former agent Peter Strzok are presented as having necessarily taken actions biased against the president and Republicans because of their expressed views. The default assumption isn’t that these career law enforcement officials were able to compartmentalize their opinions and carry out their duties objectively. The default assumption is that they operate from a position of bias.
Again, this is the same position in which the media have long found themselves. And, again, there’s a political motivation on Trump’s part and on his defenders' part to present that argument for bias whether or not they believe it.
But this is a moment — back to our original point — in which that argument seems more likely to be accepted as fair and accurate. If you assume that Democrats are all hyper-ideological and an active threat to the country, you’re probably less prone to give a Democrat (or, for that matter, a Trump critic) the benefit of the doubt that they’re acting objectively. Particularly when sources you trust are arguing constantly that those individuals' actions aren’t objective and fair.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced during a Senate hearing that it was concerned that technology companies were “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas,” a reflection of the rhetoric on the right about social-media and Google bias. Legal experts who spoke with The Post expressed concern about the statement, given the protections of the First Amendment.
Does Attorney General Jeff Sessions truly think that tech companies are biased against conservatives? Is he simply working the refs? Is he trying to score much-needed points with his boss, for whom this is a regularly cited issue? It’s hard to say. Among rank-and-file Republicans, though, it’s likely that concern about and skepticism of the political left makes it much easier for them to assume that Google’s executives aren’t just lamenting Trump’s presidency on video but also actively trying to cripple it behind the scenes.
There’s an irony undergirding all of this, particularly Parscale’s tweet. During the 2016 campaign, Parscale ran the Trump team’s digital advertising efforts, which included spending tens of millions of dollars on Facebook ads, leveraging Facebook staff who embedded with the campaign to guide their strategy. Of all the ways in which Facebook directly and indirectly helped Trump win the presidency, none was more important than that ad-buying partnership, as Parscale well knows.
In other words, Parscale certainly knows how to work tech companies for Trump’s political benefit. In 2018, though, positioning those liberal-run companies as inherently biased is a better use of his political capital.