In the week since the Trump administration issued its sweeping Muslim travel ban, a five-year-old was detained in an airport and branded a security threat by the White House press secretary. Customs and Border Protection agents openly defied an emergency stay blocking enforcement of the order, choosing instead to carry on with detentions and deny people access to legal counsel. Other travelers have alleged they were coerced by the immigration officials into signing away their green cards. Cancer patients and space camp kids were caught up in the chaos.
The response from the left has been thunderous: Thousands of people flooded airport terminals, overwhelmed the phone lines of their elected representatives, and sent a flurry of donations to organizations providing material support and legal assistance to those affected.
The response from the right has been near uniform support. But on CNN that weekend, Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic Ana Navarro railed against the order and called out her fellow conservatives for their silence:
The Republican Party I grew up in is a Republican Party of family unity. What we saw yesterday were families being torn apart. What we saw yesterday was violations of the Constitution. We don't treat different people different ways. We don't impose a religious test.
And the folks may want to tell us this is not a Muslim ban. I'll tell you who thinks it's a Muslim ban—Muslims think it's a Muslim ban.
It was compelling stuff. Navarro has a kind of emotional clarity when criticizing Trump that makes for great television. The clip had a brief second life as it made the blog rounds but then quickly faded, as these things often do, into the dark and endless sea of news coming out of the administration.
A few days later, David Brooks had his own piece in The New York Times appealing to the collective soul of his party. So did conservative writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The Week. Even Bill O'Reilly registered a small objection. ("We don’t want to tarnish the message the Statue of Liberty sends," he said.)
But come Friday, just 19 of the 292 Republicans in Congress had publicly split with the administration over its executive order. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had once denounced any kind of religious test on immigrants, put out a statement endorsing it.
The internet paid a lot of mind to elite Republican dissent, however small. The leadership of the Republican Party—and presumably a great many of their voters—didn't give a shit. That's where we are. The world is burning and the discourse will not save you.
"What we know about the kinds of people who tend to watch Fox News and MSNBC, who maybe read an elite publication like National Review, is that they tend to be older, more partisan, more politically interested, and more politically informed," Matt Levendusky, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. Or as he put it in a 2014 writeup of a study he conducted on media polarization and the political landscape: "These programs have few direct effects on most Americans."
Fox News may be the most watched cable news network (ESPN is the most watched overall), but even that still captures a relatively small portion of the general population. And as Levendusky noted, the audience is old as hell: "The median age for CNN viewers this year was 61, while it was 63 for MSNBC and 67 for Fox News," according to the Times.
Which means that Navarro and other center-right media types, sincere though they may be, aren't really a moderating influence. Instead, they exist as a balm for anxious CNN viewers who might want to see Jan Brewer get her talking points scrambled on a Sunday morning.
What does work, Levendusky pointed out—something that should be obvious after weeks of watching Democrats in Congress bend and shift and accommodate the anger of the constituents marching on their homes and offices—is direct action.
"One of the things political scientists have known for a long time, though it gets rediscovered every couple of years, is that calling your senators and representatives really works," Levendusky said. "Contrary to what some people believe, they really do respond when their constituents send them a clear message about something."
Which is what happened to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the senior senator from Alaksa who had previously voted to advance the nomination of Betsy Devos, the Republican donor and privatization-obsessed evangelical Christian that the Trump administration nominated to head the Department of Education.
Her staff estimated that more than 200 people had rallied outside her office in protest of DeVos' nomination, while another 30,000 had inundated her phone lines with the same message. It wasn't her independent judgement or high-minded appeals from conservative intellectuals that moved her—it was fear of her constituents.
“I have heard from thousands, truly, thousands of Alaskans who have shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos,” Murkowski said in a statement this week. “I do not intend to vote on final passage to support Mrs. DeVos.”
That's the kind of thing people notice. "So much has been happening that it’s hard for one story to grab the news cycle," Levendusky said. "But if more Republicans were to start abandoning the president with their Senate confirmation votes, that would have a much bigger effect on public opinion" than anything being said on cable news or printed in the pages of The New York Times or National Review.
There may be some catharsis or easy traffic to be found in celebrating the principled television conservative or the epic liberal takedown, but this isn't how politics actually work. If you want to see your congressperson change something, you better make it hurt.