Turnabout Is A Terrible Idea

by Conor Friedersdorf

Would the left benefit if it had its own Fox News, its own talk radio, and more of its own bazooka-wielding talking heads inveighing on behalf of progressivism? Many Dish readers think so, including a lot of Keith Olbermann fans who are upset by his departure. It's a useful reminder that there are a lot of thoughtful people who don't share my taste in political discourse. I stand by my comments about the utility of angry rhetoric. But I want to acknowledge some sound points made by readers. It's true that segments on Fox News sometimes influence public discourse beyond that network's audience by influencing other media outlets and driving or influencing certain stories. The high volume of RINO hunters makes it seem as if the GOP has more folks on its right-wing than its center. And I've long thought that the conservative movement succeeds in spreading information that misleads the public – to cite one example, it scared the country into thinking it would be dangerous to house Gitmo detainees in a supermax prison. Some short term political victories are won that way.

The right and the left aren't mirrors of one another. The strengths and flaws of both sides are different, as are the people who make up the ideological coalitions. For this reason, I very much doubt that the left is capable of building its own talk radio empire or Fox style news channel even if it wanted to do so. But I want to explain at greater length why liberals shouldn't envy the right for its blowhards.

Alongside their benefits, let's examine the costs.

These are inseparable from the success of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh's status as the right's most popular entertainer. Foremost is the echo chamber effect: a bubble where the Iraq War was always going swimmingly, patriotism seemed to require support for torture, and the Bush Administration's domestic agenda never lacked for defenders happy to obscure the manifold ways that it violated even the principles of conservatism. The conservative media isn't wholly responsible for 8 years of Republican rule that left the right exceptionally unhappy. But it acted as a consistent enabler of policies that did long term damage to the country and brought about an electoral flameout that handed progressives their biggest opportunity in years.

Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and friends have also succeeded in dumbing down the right's ideas. How could it be otherwise when they traffic in absurd conspiracy theories that many prominent conservatives are afraid to directly contradict? If you only trust right-leaning media sources – that is true of many conservatives – who is pushing back against the notion that Barack Obama is a Kenyan anti-colonialist, or that all liberals are power-hungry statists bent on spreading tyranny as their preferred end? Perhaps there are instances when these sorts of lies produce a short term political advantage. In the long run, it is never worth the extra distance put between the right and an accurate grasp of reality.

Do you still want your own Fox News, your own Rush Limbaugh? If the left resembled the right in that way, what would become of your next generation of young thinkers? Someone high up at MSNBC once told me that Ezra Klein was blacklisted from the network for a time because he criticized Keith Olbermann. Would it be better if that sort of thing happend more often? If there were more talking heads liberals never criticized for fear of losing TV spots and book deals? Or is it preferable that an honest guy like Chris Hayes is getting get hosting gigs at MSNBC, while writers like Adam Serwer at a progressive magazine like The American Prospect is free to speak his mind when he disagrees with an ideological ally? Is there anyone a writer at Tapped coul criticize that would result in as much of a backlash as when Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin is criticized at The Corner? Do you wish there were?

If the left better resembled the right, surely Matthew Yglesias would've stayed at The Atlantic rather than going to the Center For American Progress in the alternative universe where the move included the intellectual strait-jacket The Heritage Foundation's bloggers wear. Would that have been good for liberals?

Or take Matthew Continetti, an exceptionally smart, talented young writer who has produced a book and many magazine articles that are to be admired. Due to the incentive system on the right, it made sense for him to write a book called "The Persecution of Sarah Palin." Is that a win for conservatives who want to advance smaller government or any other policy goal? Where I'm sitting, it seems like a waste for an ideological project when one of its best young writers labors over a book whose subject is a polarizing one-term governor's supposedly unique victimization. Do you think the left is capable of having the equivalent of Fox News and talk radio without ever ending up with its own Sarah Palin, and its own Matthew Continetti to squander precious time acting as her apologist?

The left has its own malign influences on public discourse. Some are rich and successful. It no more makes sense for liberals to envy the right it's talk radio hosts than it makes sense for the right to envy the left for Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright, or Michael Moore, which isn't to say these people are perfect analogues – they're certainly they're less influential among liberals than Limbaugh is among conservatives, and it would be wrong to draw a false equivalence. But these figures were successful in gathering followers and driving stories. In the realm of politics, the pathologies that came as part of the package still resulted in a net loss.

The antidote for Fox News isn't Keith Olbermann. It's Jon Stewart. It isn't a new left-leaning host who turns Glenn Beck-style destructive absurdity to different ideological ends – it's someone who effectively demosntrates the absudity of blowhards.

Cross-ideological envy does make sense sometimes. But I insist that everything would turn out a lot better for our country if we tried to emulate the best of what the other side has to offer – if the right envied The New York Times for its unparalleled news gathering operation and cultural influence, and tried to emulate it. Or if the left envied the right for the tranformative impact City Journal had on New York City's governance, or the Tea Party's impressive ability to get its members out to rallies to demonstrate its numbers, or the steadfastness of those evangelicals who refuse to compromise their deeply held principles even when pragmatically their battles are lost. Even if you object to these specific examples, one needn't agree with the other side to see its many admiral qualities.

But it's a lot easier to copy the other side's least attractive qualities, and imagine that when you've benefitted from the attendant power, everything will turn out better. That isn't how things work. And deep down most people know it.