What's the Matter With Fox News?

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I've been reading the debates touched off by Julian Sanchez's post on "a systematic trend toward "epistemic closure" in the modern conservative movement." I'm nervous about wading in because almost anything I say is bound to offend someone I like. I'm especially sensitive--perhaps oversensitive--to the way that anything I proceed to say about conservative people outside the Northeast runs the risk of sounding a lot like that fifties moderate whose work one occasionally comes across: "Of course, I just love negroes--they're all so musical and I don't know how I'd get my house cleaned without our Bessie. But why can't they be a little more patient about this civil rights mess?"

I actually think there are a bunch of questions packed into this discussion which haven't been necessarily very clearly delineated: there are overlapping conversations about the conservative base, the conservative wonketariat, and the conservative poltiical leadership. The one I'm most interested in is the conservative intellectual environment, so that's mostly what I'll talk about, though they are all connected.

Weirdly, the word I keep coming back to when I read a lot of these discussions is "privilege." It's a word I get a huge amount of flak for using, from my conservative readers; and I've no doubt that I am going to inspire any number of bitter and angry rants from the other side for daring to apply it to a movement which is (overwhelmingly) majority white. But I nonetheless think that this might be a useful concept to describe a lot of what I'm reading.

Conservatives are, not to overlabor the obvious, marginalized in the cultural elite, even though they are powerful in the political elite. (At least some of the time, anyway). Obviously there's been an enormous amount of ink shed about why this is, but my experience of talking to people who might have liked to go to grad school or work in Hollywood, but went and did something else instead, is that it is simply hogwash when liberals earnestly assure me that the disparity exists mostly because conservatives are different, and maybe dumber. People didn't try because they sensed that it would be both socially isolating, and professionally dangerous, to be a conservative in institutions as overwhelmingly liberal as academia and media.

It's actually fascinating to watch the inversion of liberal and conservative positions on this one.  Liberals essentially seem to be saying that hey, they don't all get together in the tenure committee and agree to deny any conservatives tenure. I believe them! But I'm not sure why they think this means that the disparity is therefore not a problem. As I wrote years ago, somewhere, I doubt many bank hiring committees in the fifties got together and voted not to hire any negro bank managers. Yet, somehow, they didn't hire any negro bank managers.

Why not?  Because things like social networks, subtle bias, and tacit norms about what constituted the boundaries of acceptable traits in bank managers did all the work for them. And I doubt they got many black applicants, because after all, why on earth would you bother? Better to try to start a small business, or get a job as a Pullman porter, where you had a realistic shot at making a decent income. A poll of black high school students would probably have indicated a very small number expressing ambitions to fill jobs that realistically simply were not available to non-white, non-male candidates. But this is not evidence that there is something different about blacks that makes them not want to be successful corporate executives.

It is equally maddening that conservatives understand this about potential conservative graduate students, but not about potential black CEOs--and yes, I think this remains a problem today. I'm not sure that affirmative action is the answer, but that's a different post.

So while I completely agree that there is no one-to-one equivalence between right and left, as Ta-Nehisi writes, I'm considerably less sure about what that implies. First of all, I think Ta-Nehisi overstates his case to some extent:

In this specific case, the trouble is that the right's quackery is not merely peddled by it's fringe, but by some of its most prominent members. During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush didn't dispatch a couple of junior functionaries to Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was literally banned at the time, he dispatched himself. In 2002, it was not a small time junior congressmen who asserted that things would have been better under segregation, it was the highest ranking Republican in the Senate. 

In 2005, it was not merely a fringe group of party activists who called for interference in the Terri Schiavo case, it was the Republican president of United States. It was---yet again--the highest ranking Republican in the Senate dispensing a neurological diagnosis on a woman in Florida, from his office in Washington.

In 2007, when Trent Lott announced his resignation from the Senate, it was not merely state party officials claiming the good senator had been railroaded, it was his Republican fellow Senators. During the 2008 race, it was Mike Huckabee, runner-up for the presidential nomination of his party, who claimed to not believe in evolution.

Ta-Nehisi neglects to mention that it was also the Republicans who kicked Trent Lott's butt out of the leadership for saying those things--as they should have. And while I am in absolutely no way defending Bush's campaigning at Bob Jones university, I think it has to be noted that Barack Obama didn't send some minor campaign functionary to attend the church of a minister who was saying some pretty whacked out things; he sent himself. Every Sunday.

I don't think that this made him unfit to be president, and I stand by what I wrote at the time. But I don't think you can tar Bush with the one while giving Obama a walk on the other ... at least, not when the topic is "Our favorite fringes." And the same goes double for conservatives who gave Bush a walk, then attacked Obama. I'm willing to cut Jeremiah Wright a little more slack because white bans on interracial dating seem to me to be obviously more dangerous than the racial anger of a man who grew up on the wrong side of segregation.  But he is very definitely a member of the fringe, and I certainly hope Obama wasn't endorsing all his ideas by attending his services.

It's obviously no surprise that the lunatic BS of our own side doesn't strike us nearly as forcefully as the absolutely appallingly unforgiveable wingnuttery of the opposition. But I think this goes beyond that--and in a way that is important to understanding Jeremiah Wright, and the angrier right wing talk radio hosts. I am sure both would be appalled by the comparison, but the point here is not to draw moral equivalence between them; it's to point out how power dynamics work.

I expect I'll get a derisive response from liberals at the thought of explaining what I see in the current Republican Party thusly, given that the party tends to be strongly identified with the racial majority of the country. But privilege is not binary; it's contextual. Again, to state the obvious, you can be privileged on one dimension, and a victim of privilege on another. Being a member of the white upper middle class does not protect me from male privilege.

The point is that when one group has privilege, and the other doesn't, the response isn't symmetrical, a fact that the dominant group tends to spend a lot of time remarking upon. The out-group is angrier and prizes its group identity--"conservative"--over weaker affiliations like "journalist" or "sociologist." The angrier the out-group gets, the more uncomfortable and hostile the dominant group gets ... which, of course, makes the out-group even angrier.

The dominant majority further reinforces the effect because membership of "journalist" or "sociologist" comes to be defined by "not having a strong allegiance to groups such as 'conservative.'" Which further weakens conservative ties to those professional identities.

That's why you have black newspapers, and Jewish magazines, and Irish arts centers, but no "Bland: The Magazine of the American White Middle Class." The dominant group doesn't enforce its group identity the way the out-group does. It doesn't have to. It gets to decide what constitute the acceptable modes of behavior, sources of authority, and ways of knowing. The privileged group doesn't need its own institution specifically devoted to advancing its interests.  All it needs is a sigh, and a sneer.

This is the core of privilege: for the dominant group, it is passive, while for the minority it is an active experience. If you're a nice liberal urban media professional, you do not do anything to enjoy the perks of affinity with all the other nice liberal urban media professionals. And you don't have to renew your membership in the white male club in order to enjoy the many professional benefits of belonging. Only for the people who have to choose between identities does it require any thought. The dominant group can assert and enjoy power without even knowing it is doing so. So instead of cutting the out-group a little slack because of the problems created by exclusion, the tendency is to be less charitable because it's hard to see their plight, or identify with them. If you're enjoying all the passive benefits of privilege, the anger, and the strong lust to reinforce group identity, seems, well, kinda crazy. Maybe morally wrong. But definitely crazy. And most of us are not driven to positively engage with the insane ... or with people who think we are insane.

I think this explains a lot of what I see on Fox News, and also, what I see from liberals who are enraged by it.

This has practical importance for the conservative movement right now, and especially (to return to my area of greatest interest) for the intellectual core of the movement. Conservatives created their own institutions because it was hard to get traction within the existing ones: not only did they feel excluded from academia and the media and entertainment spheres, but to add insult to injury, they could not convince the dominant group that this was due to anything except the inherent superiority of the dominant group. So, like other such excluded groups, they created their own papers, magazines, and think tanks to mirror the universities and newspapers that seemed increasingly closed to them after World War II.

But while ideologically driven journalism and policy work can be excellent, it's also in some ways inherently problematic. I'm enough of a fuddy-duddy to think that journalism and academic work should not be subordinated to political goals--that indeed, one's political ideology should be driven by the sort of questions asked by journalists and academics. But if you are at an explicitly mission-driven institution, these goals will always be in tension, even if you agree with the mission.

I've never worked at either a liberal or a conservative political magazine, but from the outside, those tensions don't seem noticeably less at one than the other--you don't see liberal think tanks doing a lot of studies on "Teacher's Unions: Major Obstacle to Improving Urban Schools" or liberal magazine articles titled "More Abortions: The Unfortunate Side-Effect of Legalization." But I think there is a difference, which is driven by that unhappy dynamic between in-group and out-group. To wit: conservatives at political institutions find it hard to get hired by non-ideological institutions.

It is not impossible to go from conservative ideological media to the elite mainstream press, and indeed people have done it. But the people I know who have managed are noticeably moderate. They also tend to be absolutely brilliant, rather than merely solid reporters who really know their stuff--particularly if they are something other than the house conservative on an otherwise liberal opinion page. The political and technical standards for graduates of the Washington Monthly or Harper's do not seem to be quite that high. (Don't get me wrong, it's still very high--but they don't have to be "the best liberal journalist in [insert city name here]"). So it becomes incredibly risky for even a talented conservative to buck the group consensus.

The other problem is that both sorts of enterprises are dependent on donors who often have specific goals in mind--to paraphrase Noah Millman, they want work that shows how great vouchers are, not work that suggests how to fix the schools. Academics have somehow managed to perpetrate a great scam--they get people to donate money to fund all sorts of research they don't agree with, just because those people have fond memories of the buildings where the research is taking place. This is to the general benefit of society, but since these places aren't particularly conservative-friendly, the right has had to build institutions based on more ... motivated ... funding sources.

Don't get me wrong; I think the donors to think tanks do an enormous amount of good. But that funding model almost definitionally means that important kinds of work ... broad-based general inquiry with no clearly predictable results ... is hard to get done.

This is not to say that conservatives are all close minded and liberals are all just bastions of tolerance and clear-thinking. One need only read the comments threads of any of these posts to find unbearably smug folks congratulating themselves on how fortunate it is that all the crazy, unreasonable and ignorant people really are all on the other side ... an assertion that is self-refuting.

But most of the people on the right that I know think that there is a real intellectual crisis there ... and to the extent that there are parts of the right I like and agree with, I am also worried. The Reaganite Cold-War coalition for tax cuts and military spending just isn't cutting it any more, and I'm seeing less and less interesting and original work on other sorts of policy. Oh, I get a lot of great stuff illustrating why government solutions don't work ... but I'm not getting much stuff telling me what does. Except for tax cuts and vouchers, I mean.

There are exceptions. But when I look back at the bold experimentation of the Reagan era, I am deeply envious. I see a lot more work devoted to preserving those gains than to striking out in new directions. And I see huge energy funneled into rallying the base. Not by doing anything, mind you ... just by repeating how outraged we all are at the latest government failure.

Julian diagnoses this as the collapse of geography, but while I think this is possible, I'm not sure it works by forcing people in disparate areas to confront the pluralistic values of other locations. The opposite, perhaps: it's easier to find the people who agree with you, and just the people who agree with you, which reinforces the worst tendencies of both the dominant and the minority groups. I think there's a lot of merit to Julian's argument for certain issues, like gay marriage, where this simply is a question of pluralistic urban values versus the geography-induced consensus culture of a small town. But it doesn't explain feelings about tax hikes and health care.

What might explain it is that the new communications strategies mean the out-group is finding it easier to reinforce its own counter-identity. Being descended from one of America's more numerous and storied out-groups, I see the benefits of that--but also the considerable drawbacks. And in the case of conservatives, I think it's a real problem for a political moment that demands some fairly innovative solutions to some really deep problems we're facing. Okay, we don't want a VAT. But where is the workable plan for closing the budget deficit, given the political and practical constraints of existing entitlements?

Conservatives used to spend a lot of time complaining about the liberal media--and indeed, I have occasionally joined them. But it now strikes me that this was basically very healthy for the right. Everyone in the movement was frequently and forcefully confronted with the best the opposition had to offer; they could not be content with preaching to the choir. They were muscular--and liberals flabby--precisely because liberals didn't really understand what they were up against. Now it looks to me as if conservatives are often voluntarily putting themselves in the same cocoon.

(On a side note, this implies that liberals are not doing themselves any favors when they allow themselves to get genuinely enraged about the existence of Fox News.)

All that said, I'm conscious of how limited my perspective is. Limited in time, because the present almost always seems either much better or much worse than the past; we airbrush away all the little speckles. It may be that I think the conservative movement was more vibrant in the past because I'm collapsing decades of people and their work into a smaller time frame--the way many people imagine that Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Dorothy Parker all sort of lived in one flat in Paris. And limited in scope, because let's face it: I live in Washington, DC. I grew up on the Upper West Side. The only people I know in small towns are a few relatives. My perception of what is happening there is mostly mediated by a media that, umm, is pretty liberal and almost definitionally not living in small towns of a conservative bent.

But I don't think it's just that. The Republican Party is not putting forward bold new ideas; its energy lies in thwarting the Democrats' policy plans, and doing more tax cuts. No matter how much I would like to see many of those plans thwarted, I don't think this is enough. And some of the fault has to lie with the intellectual centers--the think thanks, the magazines--which don't seem to be delivering a core of new ideas that they can take to voters. When I look at the institutions of the right, it seems to me that a lot of time is spent reassuring itself about what is already believed, rather than challenging itself to find innovative new directions to take the movement--or even better describing the problem. Too much Fox News, not enough God and Man at Yale. I think I understand, institutionally, why this is happening--and I think mainstream institutions have to bear some of the blame.

And yet, who cares who's to blame? The New York Times cannot fix the problems on the right. Only conservatives can do that. 

I suspect I'm going to provoke an angry reaction from many quarters with this post--particularly from think tankers and journalists at ideological outlets who will tell me that I've missed a whole bunch of important work. But this is not an attack on think tanks, or on political magazines--my fiance works for a political magazine, for which I held the deepest respect long before he joined the staff. And there is great work coming out of a lot of think tanks on any number of fronts. The problem from my perspective is that the right is doing a better job of engaging with itself, and its own anxieties, than of engaging with the broader intellectual culture--which is allowing the intellectual culture to once again turn its back on the right. That makes it harder to create new ideas that have traction--and by extension, harder to advocate for the good ideas they already have.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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