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.