Conservative Elites, Cont'd: Being in on the Joke

by Conor Friedersdorf

Apropos my earlier post about conservative elites and the Park 51 controversy, I want to address the general relationship between certain influential figures in the conservative movement -- Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Andrew Breitbart, Sean Hannity, and others -- and the rank-and-file conservatives who make up their audience.

As a frequent critics of those particular coastal media elites, I am often presumed to be antagonistic to rank-and-file members of the American right who listen to them. Actually, that is not the case. Within the conservative movement, there is an unspoken belief at places like National Review and The Claremont Institute that while certain intellectual standards are important parts of their own institution, it's necessary to look past intellectually dishonest propaganda and extremes in ugly rhetoric when it emanates from sufficiently popular entertainers on the right. The idea is that public discourse is a big game -- or sometimes an ongoing war -- and winning it requires behavior that can't be defended on the merits, but should be excused or at least ignored because it's popular, or the other side does it, or you can't attract a Rush Limbaugh sized audience without the kinds of tactics that he employs, or certain people are too important to the ideological coalition to forcefully criticize.

One problem with this approach is that it treats the conservative rank-and-file as means to an end. They're the base, and they need riling up, and yeah, some of what they're fed can't really stand up to scrutiny, but politics is a dirty business. People who take this view tend to be sophisticated elites, and too often they forget that a lot of talk radio listeners aren't in on the joke -- that is to say, when Rush Limbaugh says that in Barack Obama's America it's okay for black kids to beat up white kids on buses, their reaction isn't to roll their eyes, or to cheer the hyperbolic zinger, it's to worry about their grandkids.

It isn't that these people are stupid. They just aren't media savvy or cynical in the same way as Washington DC based magazine writers or Los Angeles County based think tank staffers. It is their quaint belief that radio hosts aren't breezily misleading them on a daily basis, or that their favorite television personality isn't willfully profiting by selling them gold at outrageous markups, or that videos they're shown aren't egregiously stripped of context, or that the conservative author whose book they're buying to better understand American politics does a fair job when offering a summary of its debates. Some of them, when they read The Claremont Review of Books, an exceptionally written and edited publication, get the wrong idea when The Claremont Institute fetes Rush Limbaugh with a statesmanship award, despite the fact that the talk radio host has made all sorts of remarks well beneath the intellectual and moral standards of that think tank. Does anyone imagine that a less highly rated talk show host who said all the same things as Limbaugh would receive a statesmanship award? He's lauded by conservative elites because he is effective. But that fact, so obvious to everyone "in the know," isn't transparent to the average person who doesn't pay close attention to political discourse, is it?

I don't mean to suggest that people who put unwarranted trust in certain media personalities are beyond reproach. When someone has a long record of regularly misleading their audience, whether deliberately or through intellectual negligence, the audience has a responsibility to seek information elsewhere. But I must dissent from the argument I've heard in some quarters that any attempt to engage the talk radio audience or the hard-core member of the conservative movement's rank-and-file is doomed. The vast majority of these people are decent Americans who want what's best for their country, and would be perfectly pleasant company if you met them in an airport lounge or a neighborhood bar. This is true even of some people whose worst impulses are played upon by the media elites they've chosen, as I'll demonstrate in a subsequent post.