The GOP Can't Reach Beyond Its Base Without Confronting Its Hucksters

A new RNC report frets about its inability to reach people who don't already identify as partisan Republicans.
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Reuters

The Republican National Committee is finally acknowledging what dissidents on the right have warned about for years: "We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people," a new report on reforming the GOP states, "but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue."

This isn't a problem that the national party can solve on its own. Conservative principles and Republican policy ideas mostly reach the rank and file via mass media. But Fox News, most talk-radio hosts, most right-leaning websites, and even donor-driven organizations with communications shops, like the Heritage Foundation, aren't just "preaching to the choir" out of stubbornness.

It's their business strategy.

Surviving as an institution in the "telling conservatives what they want to hear" niche is a lot easier than doing so in the "attracting an ideologically diverse audience with quality content" niche. The part of the rank and file that watches Fox News, listens to Rush Limbaugh, or reads Breitbart.com as a primary information source doesn't demand content that would meet editorial standards at outlets like NPR or The New York Times, where the human tendency toward ideological bias is tempered by practices like addressing factual inaccuracies with corrections. Donors to the Heritage Foundation don't demand scholarship as rigorous as you find at Brookings.

In the early days of the blogosphere, intelligent conservative media critics could easily poke holes in the worst work produced at CBS, the newsweeklies, or the Howell Raines-era New York Times. Since then, a couple of things have happened. The Internet critics forced the "legacy media" to raise its game. Meanwhile, conservatives became less able to criticize the old foes with credibility, because the outlets conservatives started, whether The Drudge Report or Pajamas Media or Breitbart.com or The Daily Caller, while distinguishable from one another in their editorial standards, have never met the higher standards of This American Life or The New Yorker. You can't credibly express outrage at a rigorously reported, fact-checked, elegantly written David Remnick-commissioned article when you've just finished praising a James O'Keefe sting. 

As ever, there is talent on the right, though much of it is underemployed. I sometimes ponder starting a 501(c)3 called The Institute to Prevent Right-Wing Hackery just to make sure there's still sufficient incentive to sustain the intellectually honest folks who honorably labor in relative obscurity.  

The top notch essays at The Claremont Review of Books are celebrated less at National Review than Charles Krauthammer TV spots. Rising stars on the right are incentivized to waste time writing books like The Persecution of Sarah Palin. And even the old conservative chestnuts about race-baiting on the left ring hollow when Rush Limbaugh, the most popular entertainer in the conservative movement, has accused more people of racism in recent years than Al Sharpton, even as he willfully stokes racial anxiety by broadcasting monologues with commentary like, "It's Obama's America, is it not? Obama's America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama's America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, 'Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,' and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white."

In Autumn 1990, City Journal, the Manhattan Institute's right-leaning quarterly, published its first issue. At the time, crime was epidemic, America was pessimistic about its urban core, and many people thought of suburbs as the future.

The editor's note read in part:

We are not interested in binding ourselves to the platitudes of the right or the left. The age of the ideological straitjacket is, we hope, over. We do believe in looking at radical solutions to New York's radical problems. We are interested in fundamental reforms, not simply ways of coping.

New Yorkers have coped with too much for far too long.

Many who enter the city abandon all hope. Not all of them leave. Some remain, carefully cultivating cynicism, wearing irony like a badge of honor. These voices of New York, despairing of making the city livable, have instead come to celebrate the unlivable, to wallow in the dirt and the drugs and the degradation, to call it "real," "gritty," "authentic." A whole generation of New Yorkers have been offered only these alternatives: to flee or to shrug. To these people, and to every concerned citizen, NY offers that rare commodity: hope. If in facing New York's serious problems we occasionally sound grim, it is not because we are grim at heart. This is a labor of love. Like all labors, it begins in pain and ends, we hope, in the rebirth of America's greatest city.

There is inspiring ambition in that statement. Little surprise that the editorial quality of the publication has been so good in the ensuing years, whether or not you agree with its policy stances.

Compare it to the mission statement published by the newest right-leaning publication.

Every time I rehash this scathing critique of conservative media, I get emails from actual movement conservatives who say, off the record, "Yes, it's a shame, we've simply got to do better."

That isn't enough.

If every conservative who knows better simply spoke up against the least defensible material broadcast and published by right-leaning outlets, if they stopped quietly accepting just the very worst stuff, the conservative media would improve very quickly, because the people running it are capable of much better. Had conservatives merely demanded that their talk-radio hosts behave like decent human beings, as opposed to middle-aged men who call young women sluts and "nappy headed hos," their talents might redound to the credit of their ideological cause. If Breitbart.com would at least address its most obviously discredited stories, rather than leaving them up on the web uncorrected, it wouldn't condemn everything it now publishes to being doubted.

Some conservatives who share my critiques are rationally afraid to speak up. Others have long thought that I overemphasize how much the unethical behavior of guys like Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, who broadcast months of Glenn Beck chalkboard rants, and all the other hucksters matter -- that they're best ignored as fights not worth picking. The latter position, while honestly held, grows less plausible with every political battle characterized by a conservative information disadvantage, an inability to reach independents, the rise of huckster politicians like Herman Cain and Donald Trump, and a focus on totally fake controversies. An all-out attack on the hucksters is as necessary now as it was at the end of the Bush Administration, the failures of which were partly explained by a conservative echo chamber. But most conservatives who'd never dream of conducting themselves as dishonorably as the worst pundits and entertainers still dread picking that necessary fight. How do they explain the RNC's observation that "we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue"?

What do they propose instead?

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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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