The inability to judge arguments on their merits and separate fact from fantasy is what ails the conservative movement.
After years spent reporting on the Bush Administration, Ron Suskind began to understand one of its core flaws when he spoke to a senior adviser to the president who disparaged what he called "the reality-based community." The adviser's full quotation is deservedly famous. "When we act, we create our own reality," he said. "And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
That mindset had its benefits. "George W. Bush and his team have constructed a high-performance electoral engine," Suskind explained. "The soul of this new machine is the support of millions of likely voters, who judge his worth based on intangibles -- character, certainty, fortitude and godliness -- rather than on what he says or does." Much of the right stopped valuing reasoned debate or empiricism. As a result, huge swaths of an excessively loyal right-of-center GOP coalition supported numerous policies it would later look back on in bemused horror.
Come 2008, there was a brief moment of introspection. National Review hosted its "whither conservatism" conference at a Washington, D.C., hotel. Right-leaning intellectuals began dreaming up new journals, Web magazines and blogs to play a part in reshaping the coalition's future. All the old fault lines reemerged. Did the GOP need to end its experiment with "compassionate conservatism" and return to advocating smaller government? Did it need to better address the needs of the working class? Did it need to become more conservative or to moderate?
These were all questions of consequence.
But the American right was incapable of adjudicating them. It didn't matter that Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat wrote a very smart book setting forth one possible political program; that David Frum engaged in the same process; that Bruce Bartlett pressed fiscal conservatives to reexamine their failures; that Matt Welch, Nick Gillespie, and their Reason staffers weighed in with sharp libertarian critiques; that figures from Ron Paul to Daniel Larison offered devastating eviscerations of neoconservatism; that Tim Carney attacked the right's penchant for corporate cronyism; or even that the Tea Party grew into a populist force as the Obama Administration began.
Ideally, the right would find a way to incorporate nuggets from all these critiques. Sure, their advocates want to take the Republican Party in dramatically different directions. Winners and losers are inevitable.
But respect for empiricism and reasoned, intellectually honest debate could ensure that the best critiques would be aired; the best ideas attempted; and the very worst rejected, whatever their provenance. At minimum, it's possible to imagine a coalition where sound argument was valued enough to render the most vile ad hominem and the most hair-trigger heretic-shaming beyond the pale. Instead Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson remain among the right's most influential voices. Fox News is movement conservatism's go-to information source; its big boss, Roger Ailes, profited from airing lunatic conspiracy theories from Glenn Beck that no one can defend, but he hasn't been discredited. And that's just the realm of AM radio and cable television.
Think about conservative magazines.
National Review's readers have been exposed to the argument that President Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy in a "Grand Jihad" against America; in Forbes, Dinesh D'Souza set forth the thesis that Obama's every action is explained by a Kenyan anti-colonial ideology that overwhelms all else. I mention those magazines not because they're worthless, but because both publish good stuff, and employ a lot of talented people who are more than smart enough to see through this nonsense. An ideological movement that prided itself on openness to all ideas could be forgiven for the most laughable that made it onto the pages of marquee magazines, but on the right, this madness gets published in venues where David Frum is deemed beyond the pale.
A bit farther toward the fringes you've got the birthers.
Just now, the GOP nominee was exposed as believing, or pandering to donors who believe, that the 47 percent of Americans who vote Democratic are the same 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes. That is demonstrably false, but many on the right have lined up behind his remarks, and started to shame co-ideologues who dared to criticize the Republican standard-bearer.