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.
choir full reuters.jpg

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 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 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.

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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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