Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

by Conor Friedersdorf

This post is directed at Republican voters, especially if you're antagonistic toward the established order in Washington DC, and sympathetic to the Tea Party movement. You've long been upset about the size of government, the national debt, and the budget deficit. In the 2010 midterms and the 2012 general election, you're hoping to elect representatives who'll resist further expansion of federal power, or even shrink government.

What I'd like you to do is to reflect upon the sudden controversy over the construction of a mosque and community center near Ground Zero. Forget about the merits of the issue. Is it good for your agenda that this is suddenly the most controversial matter in America? Doesn't it worry you when the public conversation shifts into culture war territory, where right-of-center politicians can garner votes and support without having to address the issues you ostensibly care about most? A campaign about the bank bailouts, health care reform, and deficit reduction might be more difficult to win, but victory would give the GOP a mandate to reverse the worst excesses of the Obama domestic agenda.

If a new Congressman knows that he owes his election to populist wedge issues like the so-called Ground Zero mosque, is he going to propose tough spending cuts when he gets to Washington DC? Or is he going to become addicted to wedge issues, and never do the hard work of persuading voters that our current fiscal course is unsustainable? Too often we're electing precisely the politicians who are most adept at exploiting wedge issues.

You've probably wondered why the Republicans you've sent to Congress in the past haven't made any headway on shrinking government. It's largely because a motivated constituency stands ready to oppose any significant cut. But a small part of the blame can be assigned to a base that is forever distracted by whatever irrelevant kerfuffle is thrust before it. Do you remember the last big story that the conservative media brought to national attention? It was a videotape of a speech by Shirley Sherrod, an obscure USDA official in rural Georgia. Andrew Breitbart, proprietor of several Web sites increasingly visited by your fellow conservative Republicans, claims that he published an excerpt in order to demonstrate the supposed racism of the NAACP.

There is precious little that the right could've gained from this kind of story in the best case scenario (which of course didn't happen). Imagine that instead of embarrassing Mr. Breitbart, the episode had proved that a Georgia chapter of the NAACP once hosted a speaker who said objectionable things. Would that help shrink government? Would the freedom of the average American increase? Would our unsustainable entitlements be reformed?

Unfortunately, addressing difficult, consequential issues is no longer required to become a successful conservative entertainer or a hero in the minds of the rank-and-file. All that's required to achieve that status is a talent for flattery: people read Big Government not because the site capably tackles the most important issues in America -- a hidden video expose about census workers being paid for their lunch hour! -- but because its coverage of insignificant controversies is emotionally satisfying. Its readers are complicit in maintaining an incentive system where the most lucrative, popular thing for media savvy conservatives isn't to make real hard fought advances for the cause -- something that has been achieved on the right before -- so much as to flatter adherents that their preconceptions are true and their ideological opponents are malign (and all the better if the zinger fits on Twitter).

That brings us back to the so-called Ground Zero mosque. It's the latest battle in the culture war, and soon enough it'll be over. Either the project will be built 2 blocks from Ground Zero, or else the organizers will bow to pressure and relocate elsewhere. Maybe 20 blocks from Ground Zero. And what a victory that would be for the right. The New York Post would get its momentary hike in newsstand sales, its readers would feel 10 minutes of fleeting emotional satisfaction, and the politicians most adept at exploiting culture war issues would be marginally more likely to win a Congressional seat.

And when some Republican member of the ruling class is next faced with an issue where a party whip or a lobbyist wants him to do one thing, and his conservative constituents want him to do another? He'll think to himself, "I wonder if I can afford to lose some support from my base on this vote, and make it up by taking a populist stance on a culture war issue that doesn't cost me anything." In the past, the answer to that question has usually been yes.