The Liberal Media's Conservatives

Various folks have already gone round on this subject, but I think it's worth saying something further about the way figures like Mark Levin, Mark Steyn, Victor Davis Hanson and others have responded to those right-of-center pundits who have harshly criticized the McCain-Palin ticket and/or the GOP in general lately. I think this Hanson line is worth quoting:

... with Obama now with an 6-8 point lead, some in the DC/NY corridor these last three weeks figure it's time now to jump on, or at least sort of jump, since the train they think is leaving the station and there might be still be some space at the dinner table on the caboose. They also believe as intellectuals that the similarly astute Obamians may on occasion inspire, or admire them as the like-minded who cultivate the life of the mind-in contrast to the "cancer" Sarah Palin, who, with her husband Todd, could hardly discuss Proust with them or could offer little if any sophisticated table-talk other than the chokes on shotguns or optimum RPMs on snow-machines.

I've always found the class-war element in inter-pundit sniping a little bizarre: Whether it's the netroots types hating on center-left columnists, or paleocons whining about how neocons get invited to all the cool parties, or Hanson's peculiar vision of David Brooks and Barack Obama chatting about Proust on the Acela (or something like that), it usually seems to involve the implication that successful newspaper columnists or think tank fellows live the lives of Hollywood starlets - or maybe Gilded-Age robber barons, maybe. (My favorite example in this vein: Daniel McCarthy capping off a blog post on paleocon successes by writing, "that sound you hear is Bill Kristol choking on his foie gras... ")

But leaving that issue aside, I think it's worth taking Hanson's larger point seriously. There is unquestionably a sense in which center-right scriveners who work for institutions more liberal than they (or merely exist in a climate more liberal than they) have both personal and professional incentives to criticize their own side as often as they do the other one, and to advance arguments and strike attitudes that drive more committed partisans up the wall. I'm flattered that Julian Sanchez's list of conservative writers in this position includes David Brooks and, well, me, but I think it's pretty easy to come up with a longer tally - it would include everyone from Rod Dreher (one of the very few explicitly-conservative writers at Beliefnet and the Dallas Morning News, I believe) to Christopher Buckley (Forbes FYI editor, New Yorker contributor, and now Daily Beast blogger) to various other (Peggy Noonan, Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough, etc.) with one foot in the right-wing intelligentsia and one foot in the MSM. Not coincidentally, this list happens to overlap in many cases with a list of right-of-center pundits who have been highly critical of the McCain campaign and the GOP recently. And while I'm sure that these writers and talkers are striving for objectivity in all things and at all times, I'm also acutely aware, from my own experience, of the way that peer effects - the desire to be perceived as the "reasonable conservative" by friends and peers, the positive reinforcement from liberal readers, etc. - can subtly influence the topics one chooses to write about and the tone one chooses to take. It's not a matter of wanting a seat at the table in the Obama Administration, or anything absurd like that; it's just a matter of being aware of your audience, and wanting to be taken seriously by people who don't necessarily share your views, but who exert a significant influence over your professional success even so.

Now of course similar incentives are also at work for people who make their living writing and talking to a more partisan audience: If you run, say, a right-wing talk radio show, or work for an explicitly conservative magazine, stoking partisan fervor is almost always in your professional interest - and if you're going to accuse David Brooks of pandering to his liberal audience, what would you say about a Levin or a Limbaugh? But I want to make a different point. Suppose that you accept the most cynical account of, say, Peggy Noonan's uncertainty about whom to vote for in this election, or Christopher Buckley's Obama endorsement - that they're just craven, self-interested bandwagon jumpers who want to keep getting invited to all those swanky cocktail parties I keep hearing about. Suppose that you regard every right-of-center writer - or single-issue fellow traveler with the Bush Republicans, in the case of Christopher Hitchens - who's publicly hurled brickbats at the McCain campaign as a quisling and a coward, a stooge for liberalism and a rat fleeing a fast-sinking ship. In such circumstances, what's the best course of action - denouncing the rats, or trying to figure out why the hell the ship is sinking? Even if Brooks and Noonan and Buckley and Dreher and Kathleen Parker and David Frum and Heather Mac Donald and Bruce Bartlett and George Will and on and on - note the ideological diversity in the ranks of conservatives who aren't Helping The Team these days - are all just snobs and careerists who quit or cavil or cover their asses when the going gets tough and their "seat at the table" is threatened, an American conservative movement that consists entirely of those pundits with the rock-hard testicular fortitude required to never take sides against the family seems like a pretty small tent at this point. And if I were Hanson or Levin or Steyn I'd be devoting a little less time to ritual denunciations of heretics and RINOs, and at least a little more time to figuring out how to build the sort of ship that will make the rats of the DC/NY corridor want to scramble back on board, however much it makes you sick to have them back. Who knows? It might just be the sort of ship that swing-state voters will want to climb on board as well.