Predicting the GOP's future is the parlor game of the moment. My crystal ball is freshly polished, and I see the profit motive enduring.
Parents of spoiled children are known to dread Christmas morning on years when it isn't certain that the present inside the box is what little Chase or Caitlin wants. "Are we in for a tantrum?" they think to themselves. It is with similar trepidation that George Packer is observing Election 2012. If Mitt Romney wins the nomination but loses the general election, the GOP "will continue down into the same dark hole where Palin, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Santorum, and now Gingrich all lurk," he writes, drawing on lessons he gleaned from Election 1972.
All plausible! So are the rebuttals that Noah Millman and Daniel Larison offer. But my theory about what happens if the GOP loses is based on the proposition that the future of the conservative movement and its influence on Republicans is a business story as much as a political one.
Think of it this way. If Mitt Romney loses, these are all things that you can count on happening:
- Fox News is going to keep stoking the cultural resentments and victimhood pathology of white conservatives, and rewarding politicians who appeal to that ethos with lucrative commentator contracts politicians. Put another way, the incentives for more Sarah Palins and Michele Bachmanns will be there.
- Rush Limbaugh is going to keep attracting a sizable audience with his talent for the medium, his schtick implying that the Obama "regime" is illegitimate, and his endless ability to flatter the prejudices of his audience.
- The conservative publishing market will keep rewarding Mark Levin-style books that proceed as if America is engaged in a simple binary struggle, with liberty on one side and a series of interchangeable bogeymen on the other: tyranny, utopia, radical Islam, political correctness, liberals, secularists, etc.
But the period from 2000 to 2012 has been lucrative as hell if you're Roger Ailes or Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin or Andrew Breitbart or Sarah Palin. That isn't to say they don't earnestly want Republicans to win, or that they're faking their preference for conservative governance. It's just to say that advancing their careers or enterprises is seemingly their priority. As swimmingly as that project is proceeding, why would anyone expect them to change course?
It isn't their reality that's come crashing down. They've never been so successful before in their lives!
This is what happens when an ideological movement basically merges with a collection of for-profit ventures. Incentives no longer align. Ends and means get mixed up. Herman Cain book tours turn into seemingly viable presidential campaigns. And Donald Trump is asked to host a debate.
Movement conservatism's entertainers aren't the only people influencing the Republican Party, as is evident at four year intervals, when the GOP electorate chooses a champion the entertainers hate. But most GOP voters aren't political junkies. In between elections, when most Republicans stop paying attention to politics, the relatively sizable Fox News and talk radio audiences can wield disproportionate influence on everything from legislative agendas to off-year elections. And TV personalities, talk-radio hosts, and ideological Web sites serve as the right's intellectuals, determining what ideas get out to the junkies, and later to the rank-and-file.
The right has other intellectuals who actually care about things like policy, governing, and intellectual honesty. What many of them don't realize is that until they meaningfully challenge the Conservative Entertainment Complex, their ideas and the direction they hope to push the conservative movement is always going to be overshadowed: by Birthers, or a righteous Andrew Breitbart/James O'Keefe crusade against ACORN, or the Glenn Beck show, or months of speculation about whether Sarah Palin will run for president. That is to say, they'll be overshadowed by what looks like a part of the political movement, but is largely a moneymaking venture.
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