The Flaws of Breitbartism

The first chapter of Andrew Breitbart's newly released book - and the wrongheaded world-view it sketches

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In the opening chapter of Righteous Indignation, Los Angeles-based culture warrior Andrew Breitbart explains that his life's work is spurred by his grudge against Hollywood celebrities. "If America's pop-cultural ambassadors like Alec Baldwin and Janeane Garofalo didn't come back from their foreign trips to tell us how much they hate us," he writes, "if my pay cable didn't highlight a comedy show every week that called me a racist for embracing constitutional principles and limited government, I wouldn't be at Tea Parties screaming my love for this great, charitable, and benevolent country." He concludes by insisting that "the left made me do it! I swear!"

It must be strange, for readers unfamiliar with Breitbart, to see an adult man publicly admit that his worldview hinges significantly on the pronouncements of a B-list actress and a Baldwin brother. Or that his convictions about public affairs and love of country are so shallow that he'd stop touting them but for some unnamed comedy show. "If the college campus weren't filled with tenured professors like 9/11 apologist Ward Churchill and bullshit departments like Queer Studies," he writes, "and if the academic framework weren't being planned out by domestic terrorists like Bill Ayers, I wouldn't be expanding my Internet media empire to include Big Education."

And it's hard not to pity the man. It isn't just that he is misinformed about Ward Churchill being typical of tenured professors - it's that he has built his whole professional life around opposing what in reality is a paranoid delusion. Unfortunately, Breitbart inspires a lot of people to let umbrage and misinformation shape their political attitudes. And that's a problem for all of us - conservative and liberal - who understand that anger at Hollywood celebrities and radical academics is an imprudent foundation for any worldview, and would remain so even in the face of insults from all four Baldwin brothers.

There are a lot of ironies lost on Breitbart. The most glaring is his righteous indignation at celebrities who trash people for their political beliefs. It isn't that he doesn't have a point. Using mass media to insult half the country is idiotic. There's just one problem. Breitbart is himself a minor celebrity. How does he treat people with whom he has political disagreements? "I would not be in your life," he writes, "if the political left weren't so joyless, humorless, intrusive, taxing, anarchistic, controlling, rudderless, chaos-prone, pedantic, unrealistic, hypocritical, clueless, politically correct, angry, cruel, sanctimonious, retributive, redistributive, intolerant..." In a single paragraph, he gives us the precise behavior he claims to abhor in a form far more concentrated and extreme than any single statement ever uttered by the people he criticizes. Elsewhere, he goes so far as to call the American left "a ruthless, relentless, shameless enemy."

This brings us to Breitbart's master narrative of American politics and culture. The man possesses media savvy, so I'd hoped that at least some of his critique would be on point, if wrapped in his usual bombast and factual inaccuracies. Nope. Despite long experience with the author's arguments, I found myself surprised by an iteration less grounded in reality than anything I'd previously encountered:

America is in a media war. It is an extension of the Cold War that never ended but simply shifted to an electronic front. The war between freedom and statism ended geographically when the Berlin Wall fell. But the existential battle never ceased. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the battle simply took a different form. Instead of missiles the new weapon was language and education, and the international left had successfully constructed a global infrastructure to get its message out.
Schools. Newspapers. Network news. Art. Music. Film. Television. For decades the left understood the importance of education, art, and messaging. Oprah Winfrey gets it. David Geffen gets it. President Barack Obama gets it. Bono gets it. Even Corey Feldman gets it. But the right doesn't. For decades the right felt the Pentagon and the political class and simple common sense could win the day. They were wrong.

So Breitbart thinks that there is no substantive distinction - just a difference of form! - between the Cold War battle against the Soviets, on one hand, and the ideological battle pitting Breitbart against Oprah Winfrey. (He also thinks Oprah, Bono, and President Barack Obama agree with this analysis.) Do folks in the conservative movement find it discomfiting that an influential ally's core analytic foundation is transparently idiotic? Surely even the most dedicated propagandists can agree that it's unhealthy for the base to be that disconnected from reality, if only because understanding the left helps in opposing it.

Another aspect of Breitbart's theory is that "the left does not win its battles in debate. It doesn't have to. In the twenty-first century, media is everything. The left wins because it controls the narrative. The narrative is controlled by the media. The left is the media. Narrative is everything." If you believe that, it follows that conservative victory depends on building an alternative media, one that isn't concerned with argument so much as winning back the narrative through some other means. (A constant feature of Breitbart is that he tells you all about the terrible evils of something, and then argues the only way to combat it is to build a right-wing version of it, an approach that he never seems to recognize as self-evidently immoral on its own terms.)

What I find strange is that lots of people on the right - almost the entire staff of National Review and all of Reason, for example - passionately believe that engaging in reasoned argument is a crucial aspect of opposing progressivism. In other words, that reasoned debate does matter. But these magazines are basically friendly to Breitbart, and never seem to object when he operates as if the contrary is true. Insofar as people take his worldview seriously, it does grave damage to the right's entire intellectual project. Isn't this mistake serious enough to warrant direct, explicit push back, even against a supposedly valuable ideological ally? (That I am often alone in finding his influence on conservatism and libertarianism malign never ceases to amaze me.)

Given his flawed premises, it's only natural for Breitbart to argue that the most noteworthy and influential factor in handing the 2008 election to Barack Obama was the support of Oprah Winfrey. Unmentioned is the unpopularity of George W. Bush, the weak candidacy of John McCain, public opinion turning against the Iraq War, the faltering economy - for Breitbart, Obama won because the media wanted it that way, and they have an apparent ability to brainwash the public. Can anyone think this a healthy thing for marginally more people on the right to believe?

Breitbart goes on to tell the familiar story about how back in the dark old days, before Rush Limbaugh jump-started the rise of conservative media, there wasn't any talk radio, or Fox News, or conservative bloggers, or any challenge at all to the "Democrat-Media Complex." In this telling, the rise of alternative media represents "the successful, better-late-than-never counterattack against the left's unchallenged control of a center-right nation," a development that is the greatest hope for conservative resurgence.

It is convenient, if you're a right-wing Web publisher whose livelihood hinges on ever bigger audiences consuming what you publish, to assert a master-theory wherein media narrative is everything, the health of the right-wing media complex is synonymous with the advancement of conservatism itself, and what the conservative media counterattack needs is "field generals, platoon leaders, and foot soldiers ready to storm every hill on the battlefield." (Imagery fit for a commemorative gold coin.)

But I have a question for Andrew Breitbart. If control of the American media is what matters most, if it is the main factor in deciding presidential elections, and controlling the media narrative through some means other than argument is the key to conservative success in the future, how do you explain 1980, 1984, and 2008? How is it that Ronald Reagan won the presidency and positively cruised to re-election, even though Rush Limbaugh was working for the Kansas City Royals at the time, cable news didn't exist, there was no Drudge Report or blogosphere, and all three news networks took their cues from the front page of The New York Times?

And then in 2008, when conservative media was reaching more people and making more money than ever before, the radio waves filled with Rush Limbaugh imitators, right-wing books topping the bestseller lists, Fox News the most popular cable news network in America, Red State up and running at full tilt... how is it that Barack Obama won? It's almost as if the success of conservative media outlets and ideological entertainment isn't the basic driver of American politics. And that, as it's presented in Chapter One, the core worldview of Andrew Breitbart is easily refuted, bombastically phrased nonsense.