What Is The Conservative Cocoon?

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Ach, okay, I'll wade back in to this debate one more time, because I think Mark Steyn has slightly mistaken the thrust of this post:

One of the things I love about America (speaking as a foreigner) is how decentralized it is. Pace "New York, New York", you don't have to make it there, you can make it anywhere. Yet, in contrast to other industries, our chattering classes are uniquely concentrated in the aforementioned corridor. Isn't this a little odd? And doesn't it pose particular problems for Republicans? Conservative elites live in liberal jurisdictions - and, way out back in the "conservative cocoon", it gives them the whiff of absentee landlords, who enrich themselves on the strength of various holdings in ramshackle colonies but have no desire to spend much time there. Whatever one feels about what Ross Douthat calls the "conservative cocoon", it elects conservative mayors, conservative school boards, conservative road agents, conservative state reps, and conservative governors: it's the only place to go to experience conservatism as applied in practice. On the other hand, Mr Douthat's afforementioned NY/DC corridor will once in a while elect a Michael Bloomberg or a Christie Whitman, and that it's: conservatism remains strictly a theoretical proposition.

That's why the metropolitan sneers about the size of Wasilla were extremely ill-advised, and not just because of the implication that the mayors of, say, New Orleans, San Francisco or Detroit are therefore more qualified to be in the White House. If it weren't for small towns, suburbs and rural districts, there would be no conservative government at all. With a few exceptions (such as Vermont), "blue states" mostly turn out to be red states with a couple of big blue cities (Pennsylvania, for example, or even California). Almost by definition, an effective conservative executive - the kind you might want in the White House - can only come from flyover country.

So, when a conservative pundit mocks Wasilla, he's mocking conservatism as it's actually lived, as opposed to conservatism as a theoretical fantasy playground for the purposes of cocktail-party banter.

Just to clarify: Sarah Palin's Alaska is not the conservative cocoon. Neither is Tim Pawlenty's Minnesota, or Mike Huckabee's Arkansas, or any other place out in flyover country where a populist conservative became a popular and successful governor. The cocoon is the constellation of mutually-reinforcing conservative institutions - think tanks and advocacy groups, talk-radio shows and websites - that can create the same echo-chamber effect that the liberal media has long produced, and that at times makes it difficult for the Right to grapple with reality. The cocoon is the place where it took an awfully, awfully long time for conservatives to admit that the post-2004 crisis in Iraq wasn't just a matter of an MSM that wouldn't report the good news. The cocoon is the place where conservatives persuaded themselves, in defiance of most of the evidence, that the reason the GOP lost Congress in 2006 was excessive spending, and especially excessive pork. And today, the cocoon is the place where conservatives are busy convincing themselves that Sarah Palin's difficulties handling high-profile media appearances aren't terribly important, that her instincts are more important than her grasp of national policy, and that the best way to defeat Barack Obama is to start with the lines that Palin has used on the stump - Ayers, anti-Americanism and ACORN - and take them to eleven.

So when I say that a populist conservatism needs elites, what I really mean is that it needs elites who can step outside this cocoon and see national politics more clearly - whether they work for conservative outlets, MSM outlets, or something else entirely. This is not, I repeat not, a matter of listening to Beltway conventional wisdom instead of the practical wisdom of the heartland. It's a matter of recognizing political realities, instead of denying them outright - whether you're in DC, New Hampshire, or Wasilla. The Sarah Palin who ran for statewide office in Alaska appeared to understand this, which is why she seemed like such a promising figure to me months before McCain selected her: As governor, she was conservative and pragmatic, right-of-center and anti-ideological. The trouble is that since she's burst on to the national stage, she's entered a right-wing world that's bent on, well, cocooning her - telling her how great she is regardless of whether she gets up to speed on policy and handles Katie Couric's questions, feeding her lines that appeal primarily to the segment of the electorate that's already in conservatism's corner, and calling out anyone who criticizes her as a cocktail-swilling elitist.

Again, these voices are doing her no favors. If you don't think Sarah Palin should listen to people like David Brooks, fine - there are other conservative thinkers whose views differ from Brooks's particular strain of right-of-centrism, but who share his interest in policy and (more importantly) his understanding of the straits the GOP is in. But she needs to listen to someone who won't just say, as Steyn does, that all she - or conservatism in general - needs are "a few sharper moose gags" to get things back on track.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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