Conservative Media's Tribal Loyalty Weakens the GOP

Instead of rewarding smart political strategy or policy substance, right-wing outlets celebrate those who are merely in a state of conflict with Democrats or liberals.
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The strategy that House Republicans have imprudently embraced in recent weeks has many causes. Dysfunction at conservative media outlets is one of them.

"Republicans can pretty much say whatever they want, no matter what the bizarre logic and no matter what connection it has to what they were saying five minutes ago, and Fox News will totally accept it and blast it for hours or days," Jonathan Bernstein observes. "The result? Republicans have become incredibly lazy. After all, why bother constructing a coherent argument if you don’t need one."

It's true. In order to get good press from the conservative media, Republican politicians need not craft a brilliant political strategy or impress with policy substance or excel at persuading the public that conservative ideas are the way forward. They need only find themselves in conflict with President Obama and Democrats. 

Consider the shutdown. Under any reasonable standard, Republicans have positioned themselves poorly. Public-opinion polls suggest that they are losing support. It's easy to imagine outcomes that do serious harm to their future prospects. And it's hard to see any outcome that significantly advances the GOP agenda. 

Yet here's Rush Limbaugh's take: "Republicans are Winning the Shutdown Despite the GOP Establishment Attempts to Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory." If those responsible for getting Republicans into this tenuous predicament are praised by the most popular entertainer in the conservative movement—if their high-risk, low-reward strategy is extolled as having positioned the GOP "in the jaws of victory," even as the party risks stinging defeat—they can safely conclude that conservative media will praise them no matter what. Going forward, their incentive will be to stay in conflict with liberals, not to advance conservative ideas or to achieve incremental policy victories.

Shameless hackery is part of what's driving this. 

In many corners of conservative media, the rewards accrue to those who are "loyal" (which is to say, willing to engage in spin for the right), not to purveyors of frank, honest analysis (few of whom are willing to call out hucksters for being hucksters).

But there are other factors at play too. The conservative movement encompasses a lot of extremely smart political observers who've thought carefully about their ideological project and offered important insights about how to advance it most effectively in coming years. But this medium-to-long-term thinking is virtually absent from Fox and talk radio. Watch Sean Hannity. Listen to Rush Limbaugh. With few exceptions, the focus is winning whatever fight happens to be dominating the current news cycle. Each one is treated as if it is as maximally significant as any other, and that is no coincidence. If you're driven by partisan tribalism more than ideology, if getting in rhetorical digs at liberals thrills you more than persuading adversaries or achieving policy victories, it makes sense that you would fight substantively inconsequential battles with no more or less vigor than any other.  

Unfortunately for movement conservatives, approaching politics one news cycle at a time and never looking any farther forward than the next election all but guarantees an inability to strategize or lay groundwork. Little wonder that Limbaugh and his fans pined after a future where Republicans would run all three branches of government, achieved just that for a time under George W. Bush, and utterly failed to advance the long-term prospects of movement conservatism. Bush was in constant conflict with liberals, and so he retained the support of movement conservatives year after year with little thought of the implications. Even conservatives agree now that Bush got a pass, but that hasn't affected the trust they put in the entertainers who created the conditions for it.

The amount of conservative hackery broadcast and published every day remains staggering. In private, that fact is widely acknowledged even among movement conservative pundits, who can hardly deny something so glaringly obvious. But I have long been in a tiny minority of observers who regard conservative media as something that must be reformed if the right is to recover. How can an ideological movement succeed if its leaders and its rank and file daily rely on bad information from sources that constantly peddle fiction as fact?

Notice that conservative media became ascendant after the apex of conservative successes during the Reagan Revolution. And ever since, as conservative media has grown more popular and lucrative, conservatism itself has suffered. Coincidence? Think it over, conservatives. You have nothing to lose but your hucksters.

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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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