A Lack Of Confidence

by Conor Friedersdorf

James Joyner is exactly right:

I’ve long since tired of the notion that the only possible motivation that conservatives could possibly have for calling out the lunatic fringe within their movement is a desire to be loved by liberals and get invited to their cocktail parties. Going back at least to William F. Buckley, Jr.’s famous article casting the John Birch Society out of the legitimate conservative moment, it has been understood that letting the fringe define the cause hurts it. Buckley correctly reasoned that Birch founder Robert Welch’s crazy and outrageous conspiracy theories were tainting the legitimate anti-Communist movement.

Similarly, the psychotic rantings of Glenn Beck invite ridicule on the rest of us. Legitimate points are inevitably countered by comparisons with absurd variants by Beck, Coulter, Limbaugh, and others who make a living stoking the fears of the base. This is, at best, a distraction from the debate and, often, makes intelligent discussion of the issues next to impossible because they’ve been preemptively framed by the loudest, most shrill, most hyperbolic voices.

Robert Stacy McCain responds:

If we had listened to that argument in 2009, there never would have been a Tea Party movement. Republicans would have rolled over and played dead and gone along with the whole Obama/Pelosi/Reid agenda because it was not respectable to oppose Keynesian “stimulus” spending, cap-and-trade, nationalized health care, and so forth.

Now that “the loudest, most shrill, most hyperbolic voices” have succeeded in fomenting grassroots opposition, however, we are told that elected representatives must ignore the people who elected them and, instead, must heed those respectable voices who did nothing at all to help encourage the Tea Party movement.

It's sad indeed that conservatives like RSM doubt the ability of the right to compete in American politics without the Limbaughs, Becks, and Levins of the world. The way they talk you'd think conservatism never won a victory prior to the rise of talk radio, and that conservative and libertarian ideas are so weak that Americans will only go along with them if tricked by the most talented propagandists available. Where is their confidence? And what of their discernment? What's actually gone on in the United States since the year 2000? For almost eight years, the Bush Administration managed to keep the support of its base, despite pursuing all manner of idiotic policies. And they did so in large part by relying on sycophantic propagandists. Rush Limbaugh himself admitted to carrying water for Republicans during that era despite thinking they were taking the country in the wrong direction. And many pundits, especially on Fox News, behaved even worse. The way RSM talks, you'd think it was RINOs who were responsible for the idiocy of that administration. Was Tom Delay a RINO? How about Dick Cheney? Denny Hastert? The problem wasn't that DC turned people moderate – it turned them corrupt.

You'd think that experience would've chasten the conservative movement. The perils of a propagandistic echo chamber were aptly demonstrated, even before a weak GOP field gave us the awful McCain/Palin ticket, and the Democrats won a historic election. Some months later they passed the health care bill they'd been wanting for decades – and all this occured in the age of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh! As the conservative movement suffered loss after loss, its entertainers were never better off! Still, their apologists insist that the movement's fate is tied to theirs. And what evidence is offered? A tremendous policy achievement? That is never the metric the apologists site. (They'd have to keep quiet.) All they've got is the Tea Party, its very partial reliance on talk radio, and the fact that it managed to take back the House of Representatives for the GOP... during a midterm election when an incumbent Democrat was seen by many Americans as flailing through the worst economy in a generation.

This alone is enough to persuade Robert Stacy McCain that Limbaughs and Palins and Becks and Levins do more good than harm. He needs to actual policy achievement. Why are those who agree with him being such cheap dates?

Says Joyner:

Nobody’s arguing that the alternative to Beck-style lyin’ and cryin’ is to adopt the Democratic agenda. Rather, the alternative is to present a passionate, reasonable, and honest defense of conservative principles. I just prefer Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin, George Will to Ann Coulter, and Bill Buckley to Glenn Beck.

One can be respectable and stand for fiscal responsibility and smaller government. Indeed, if one’s goal is to persuade those who don’t already agree, you’re much more likely to do it that way than with screaming loons.

Just so. It even happened once before, in 1979, when Bill Buckley and George Will helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency, The New York Times and the network news ruled the media, and Rush Limbaugh was working as director of promotions for the Kansas City Royals. Now the right has a guy like Mark Levin, once a respected man within the movement, whose squandered his reputation so he can attract listeners by making a spectacle of himself on the radio, and gone so far off the rails intellectually under the current incentive system that he is picking fights with Bill Kristol (going so far as to compare him to a Stalinist!) in order to defend Glenn Beck! I've got many disagreements with Kristol, but when he says that Beck "brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society," he's got a point.

I wish that either the conservatives who know better would stop ennabling these people (you'll never control Beck, but Limbaugh and Levin are deeply anxious about maintaining a veneer of respectability and lip service about their supposed brilliance among conservative intellectuals), or that the libertarians or even the liberaltarians would succeed in building their own coalition so that I don't have to care about the right anymore. Instead the future is looking like more big-spending, civil liberties destroying progressives, people so enamored with public employee unions that an efficient government becomes a third order priority. Or else civil liberties destroying movement conservatives who never deliver on promises to shrink government, demagogue any issue related to terrorism, and conduct foreign policy with a zeal for American aggression and empire that exceeds even the current administration's undeclared drone wars, assasination orders, and anti-drug operations in 86 countries.