How Selective Outrage Helps the Right Avoid Debating Entitlements

Does the GOP's base want to end or preserve them? Given the difference in their rhetoric and actions, maybe they don't even know. 

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Listen to right-wing talk radio long enough and you'll notice how expertly its hosts marshal selective outrage. Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson are excoriated for departing from the vision of the Founders. The New Deal and the Great Society are cast as affronts to the Madisonian order. Democrats are lambasted for embracing an unconstitutional, statist, disqualifying world view.

It's all perfectly consistent ... until the subject turns to Republicans.

Sure, the talk-radio right regularly criticizes GOP politicians for insufficient conservatism. But are Republican presidents or nominees ever lambasted as statists, or said to be choosing tyranny over liberty, when they assert the importance of a federal safety net or champion preserving Medicare? Suddenly a departure from the Founding vision isn't disqualifying. It is at worst an unfortunate error in judgment from an otherwise honorable man. Much more often, the GOP politician in question isn't just grudgingly accepted as the lesser of two evils. He is regularly invited on right-wing talk radio for fawning interviews; his character and judgment is extolled.

Even vice-presidential candidates are treated thusly. 

Ask Mark Levin if Rep. Paul Ryan is a statist. Juxtaposing Levin's stringent definition with Ryan's record in Congress, the answer is clearly yes. Yet describing Ryan, Levin says, "Ryan's articulate, he's confident, he's principled, he's knowledgeable, and he's a conservative. And that's what we needed." Ryan isn't cast as the lesser of two statist evils. He is portrayed as a model of right-thinking.

Selective outrage is but one of the ways the conservative movement obscures a deep divide among its adherents. Deep hostility to the New Deal, the Great Society, and the welfare state are rhetorical lynchpins. In theory, conservatives are committed to eliminating much of the federal government. But very few conservatives actually have the confidence of those convictions. And rather than debate the matter, so that the gap between what they say and what they believe can be gradually narrowed, the right avoids doing so, which ends in incoherence.

Or worse yet, it ends in cynical posturing. A post-New Deal outlook and an expansive reading of the commerce clause is creeping tyranny when Democrats do it -- and mostly ignored when Republicans do it.

Andy McCarthy, with whom I frequently disagree, has a habit of clarifying tensions in conservatism that his co-ideologues would rather keep muddy. Usually he does so by probing the logic behind the Bush-era "Freedom Agenda" (mixing valid critiques with digressions into obviously false sharia-law conspiracy theories). In a recent piece, he wrote, "At a time when the welfare state is -- inevitably -- collapsing of its own weight, Romney and Ryan run as its guardians. They've come to praise Caesar, not to bury him .... The problem with Medicare is not just that its current formula is unsustainable, or that Obama diverted a staggering amount of projected future spending on it into yet another bank-breaking entitlement. It is that the national government is innately incapable of running an entitlement program. Is the election about the side that grasps this versus the side for which enough is never enough? Surely you jest."

McCarthy's antagonism to the welfare state is common enough on the right. He is almost alone in acknowledging that having those concerns and thinking that Romney and Ryan will remedy them is incoherent. My suspicion is that many more self-identified conservatives would not ultimately share McCarthy's assessment of the welfare and entitlements, but haven't really thought the matter through. The persistent overlap between people who self-identify as Tea Partiers and who turn out for Republicans running "Mediscare" ads suggests something illogical is afoot.

I suspect Republicans would advance more effective policies, on welfare and social insurance, if they acknowledged their theoretical legitimacy, and understood that to do so is no affront to liberty (don't take my word for it, take Hayek's). Similarly, they would have a better (if still miniscule) chance of returning to a pre-Great Society, pre-New Deal consensus, or its modern equivalent, if the small group of people who actually believe that to be desirable would start having the courage of their convictions, and stop being hackish sycophants for every GOP presidential ticket.

A good start would be a forthright debate about something McCarthy wrote: "The national government is innately incapable of running an entitlement program." How many conservatives agree? But debates about questions like that are rare. Far more often, movement conservatives are uncompromising in their rhetorical attacks on welfare and entitlements, even as their own opinions on those subjects and the actions of the politicians they support are compromised.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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