Inferiority Complex

by Conor Friedersdorf

This whole Julian Sanchez post on "the politics of ressentiment" is worth a read. "Conservatism is a political philosophy," he writes. "The farce currently performing under that marquee is an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag."

There are a whole lot of intelligent conservative voices who don't fit that characterization, as I'm sure Mr. Sanchez would agree. I hope readers who share in his lament will check out some of the great work being done at Cato and the Institute for Justice, or the writing of folks from Reihan Salam to Tim Carney to James Poulos to Rod Dreher to Yuval Levin to Eugene Volokh to Daniel Larison, some of the writers at National Review, especially the print version, old standbys like City Journal and The New Criterion, the always intelligent Claremont Review of Books, even the radio show of Dennis Prager and certain feature pieces at The Weekly Standard that involve neither foreign policy nor Sarah Palin -- this is a woefully incomplete list, but it begins to signal that there is indeed an intelligent loyal opposition in America, one that gets some things right and other things wrong, but that would certainly improve upon our politics if its best ideas were more influential.

Unfortunately, the conservative base and the media at large are more interested in rallying behind or lavishing attention on Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, all of whom fit Mr. Sanchez's description. One piece of evidence confirming his diagnosis is the kind of insults the talk radio right and its lackeys in the blogosphere use when they're trying to discredit political or ideological opponents via insults. Mark Levin, a man intelligent enough that he needn't have an inferiority complex, for some reason adopts the rhetorical style of the classic insecure bully -- juvenile name calling, constant self-aggrandizement, vituperative outbursts. It hardly matters whether he actually feels these things (you wouldn't think so when you read him in print) or just feigns it because it's what attracts an audience. Mr. Sanchez's point is made either way.

The most absurd example of an inferiority-complex driven insult? It's here:

When Obama and Vice President Biden made a surprise lunch stop at a burger joint in Virginia this week, the President reportedly asked for a burger with “spicy” or “Dijon mustard.” 

Right-wing talk show host Laura Ingraham weighed in: “What kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but Dijon mustard?”

Fox New's Sean Hannity invoked the Grey Poupon commercial. “I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger, Mr. President,” Hannity said. 

Later in his post, Mr. Sanchez writes, "The secret shame of the conservative base is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy." The Tea Party and Ditto-head crowd do not make up the entire base of the Republican Party, to be sure, but I think that this description is substantially correct. I've written at length about the way Rush Limbaugh has adopted the race-baiting tactics of Al Sharpton.

With regard to status hierarchy, consider the term "the mainstream media" as used on the right -- it is telling that hosts on Fox News whose books make the New York Times bestseller list and whose ratings are higher than anyone on CNN unironically denigrate that network as part of "The MSM," as if they're somehow outside of mainstream infotainment. There is also the "Fair and Balanced" slogan. Taken literally, without the baggage journalism produced by Roger Ails and company has given it, those words express values that the average Columbia Journalism Review staffer would champion. Despite the pose, however, what Fox News has done isn't to improve upon the biased journalism so often denigrated by the conservative base -- it has instead self-consciously created its own version of that bias. Imitation, flattery, yada yada yada. 

That is one perverse tragedy of the present political moment. The left has its flaws, as all political coalitions do, and the right has offered valid critiques of these blind spots and excesses over the years, but rather than creating an improvement on CNN, or identity politics, or Medicare scare-mongering, or Bush Derangement Syndrome, the present leaders of Conservative Inc. regard these as tactics that worked for the left, and are thus worth emulating.

The other perverse tragedy?

The conservative base is right to oppose certain policies born of an elite, New York to DC corridor consensus, and right to feel that they are sometimes disrespected by elites, but the folks they count on to look out for them -- the leaders of Conservative Inc. -- often disrespect them most profoundly, playing them for bigger fools than anyone else. Inevitably, you'll see some bloggers on the right cite this blog post as another instance where I am supposedly disloyal to conservatives, but search the archives of their blogs to see whether they've ever objected when people on the right far more wealthy and influential than I am enrich themselves by selling out the health and wealth of the base. To confront these people would be to admit that they're being taken for a ride -- and that too often, they're helping to navigate.