Can Ricochet Make Conservatism Fun Again?

If conservative ideas are dead, as many liberals claim, nobody seems to have told conservatives. Right-wingers believe their ideas are alive and fit for implementation. All that is needed, perhaps, is new personalities and institutions able to market conservatism in the post-Bush era. At least, that is the thinking behind Ricochet, a new online effort that launches in the next few weeks and aims to advance the right-wing conversation in the age of Obama.

The distinguishing feature of Ricochet will be its unique format, which promises to look unlike any other site on the net. "It will not be a news aggregator, or a megachat like Daily Kos, but instead will be a feed like Facebook or Twitter or Tumbler," says James Poulos, Ricochet's managing editor. Approximately 40 contributors will have an online conversation that is akin to a conservative cocktail party.

Ricochet is the brainchild of two established conservatives, former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson and Hollywood producer-pundit Rob Long. "Rob and I felt there was plenty of space in the online world for a center-right website with a sense of fun, of talking back and forth among conservatives," says Robinson. The left outweighs the right-wing in cyberspace, he says, even with everything from The Weekly Standard to 'Townhall.com' populating the web.

Ricochet will in many ways be the stepchild of Culture 11, the short-lived but important website that tried to reinvent conservatism in the post-Bush era. Poulos was political editor at Culture 11, and the sites share a commitment to reconciling the right wing with popular culture. But unlike its predecessor, Ricochet feels no need to rethink conservatism--it is instead a sign that in the Obama era, right-wingers feel confident enough in their ideas and prospects that they think major ideological modifications are unprincipled and unncessary. "At a time when the country is being dragged to the left by Washington and mainstream media, this is another way to fight back," says Robinson. "Since the demise of Culture11, politics have changed," says Poulos. "The conversation on the right has become more interesting and productive than it was." In addition, Obama has been in the White House long enough to convince people of the direction he's taking America in, he says.

In that vein, most of Ricochet's contributors are familiar names. In addition to frequent National Review writers Robinson and Long, John Yoo, Victor Davis Hanson, Shelby Steele, Claire Berlinski and Mark Steyn will grace Ricochet's virtual pages.  Several conservatives have griped privately that these names are hardly in need of more outlets for their commentary, so it is unclear what, if anything, the site will bring new to the ideological table.

And indeed, of the 15 Ricochet podcasts released to date, hosted jointly by Robinson, Long and the ubiquitous Steyn (who often fills in for Rush Limbaugh on his radio show), little new ideological ground is broken. Tellingly, one episode features a session bashing conservative apostate David Frum as a "country-club Republican" who cedes too much ground to the Democrats, and doesn't do enough "fighting, screaming and hollering," the function of right-wing writers and thinkers, according to Long.  Guests for the podcast have been movement stalwarts like Andrew Breitbart, Jeb Bush, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Richard Epstein. So far, exactly one Democrat has appeared--Mickey Kaus, most famous for his denunciations of liberals. And reformist conservatives are unconvinced that Ricochet will be performing a service for the movement in merely recycling traditional ideas. "Movements activists have not even begun to grasp how and why the public has turned against them," laments Daniel Larison, a columnist for The Week magazine. It would be much more helpful to speak honestly about ourselves and stop trying to interpret every event as a great sea change in public opinion towards conservatism, he says.

There will be a few new names on the site. Most unique is Dave Carter, a 48-year-old trucker who lives in Panama City, Florida. Carter, a former active-duty historian in the Air Force, was reading National Review Online at a truck stop when he emailed Robinson with a question about Justice Scalia. Robinson was impressed with Carter's biography and enlisted him for Ricochet. Unusual credentials aside, however, Carter espouses typical Republican opinions. "Freedom is under assault here at home," he says. Just as in the Air Force he defended his country from foreign threats, he now will protect it from domestic ones, he says.

But the founders of Ricochet are more interested in making conservatism fun, light-hearted and accessible than in re-evaluating their ideas, and at least in this mission, to judge by the podcasts, they seem to have succeeded. Listening to Steyn, Robinson and Long banter and joke about current events is like listening in on a few smart conservative friends having beers. There's music, there's laughing, and there's sprightly, but good-natured, debate.

Less clear is whether the site will succeed as a financial endeavor. All of Ricochet's investors are private, independent individuals, who have given an amount that Poulos says is "more than adequate but doesn't put stars in our eyes." The site will solicit money from members and subscribers, who will have more interaction with contributors than is normally the case with political sites. The question is how many people will pay. Long and Robinson are hope that tapping into at least some the deep well of anti-Obama sentiment in the country will generate revenue.

Of course, they're not alone in doing so. Every right-wing outlet has raised the anti-Obama banner. But if Ricochet is not filling an ideological void, it might fill a technological or conversational one. And in an era when publications are expiring faster than they are sprouting, perhaps this is reason enough to welcome Ricochet into the world.
Presented by

Jordan Smith

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, Foreign Policy and The New Republic.

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