The inability to judge arguments on their merits and separate fact from fantasy is what ails the conservative movement.
After years spent reporting on the Bush Administration, Ron Suskind began to understand one of its core flaws when he spoke to a senior adviser to the president who disparaged what he called "the reality-based community." The adviser's full quotation is deservedly famous. "When we act, we create our own reality," he said. "And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
That mindset had its benefits. "George W. Bush and his team have constructed a high-performance electoral engine," Suskind explained. "The soul of this new machine is the support of millions of likely voters, who judge his worth based on intangibles -- character, certainty, fortitude and godliness -- rather than on what he says or does." Much of the right stopped valuing reasoned debate or empiricism. As a result, huge swaths of an excessively loyal right-of-center GOP coalition supported numerous policies it would later look back on in bemused horror.
Come 2008, there was a brief moment of introspection. National Review hosted its "whither conservatism" conference at a Washington, D.C., hotel. Right-leaning intellectuals began dreaming up new journals, Web magazines and blogs to play a part in reshaping the coalition's future. All the old fault lines reemerged. Did the GOP need to end its experiment with "compassionate conservatism" and return to advocating smaller government? Did it need to better address the needs of the working class? Did it need to become more conservative or to moderate?
These were all questions of consequence.
But the American right was incapable of adjudicating them. It didn't matter that Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat wrote a very smart book setting forth one possible political program; that David Frum engaged in the same process; that Bruce Bartlett pressed fiscal conservatives to reexamine their failures; that Matt Welch, Nick Gillespie, and their Reason staffers weighed in with sharp libertarian critiques; that figures from Ron Paul to Daniel Larison offered devastating eviscerations of neoconservatism; that Tim Carney attacked the right's penchant for corporate cronyism; or even that the Tea Party grew into a populist force as the Obama Administration began.
Ideally, the right would find a way to incorporate nuggets from all these critiques. Sure, their advocates want to take the Republican Party in dramatically different directions. Winners and losers are inevitable.
But respect for empiricism and reasoned, intellectually honest debate could ensure that the best critiques would be aired; the best ideas attempted; and the very worst rejected, whatever their provenance. At minimum, it's possible to imagine a coalition where sound argument was valued enough to render the most vile ad hominem and the most hair-trigger heretic-shaming beyond the pale. Instead Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson remain among the right's most influential voices. Fox News is movement conservatism's go-to information source; its big boss, Roger Ailes, profited from airing lunatic conspiracy theories from Glenn Beck that no one can defend, but he hasn't been discredited. And that's just the realm of AM radio and cable television.
Think about conservative magazines.
National Review's readers have been exposed to the argument that President Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy in a "Grand Jihad" against America; in Forbes, Dinesh D'Souza set forth the thesis that Obama's every action is explained by a Kenyan anti-colonial ideology that overwhelms all else. I mention those magazines not because they're worthless, but because both publish good stuff, and employ a lot of talented people who are more than smart enough to see through this nonsense. An ideological movement that prided itself on openness to all ideas could be forgiven for the most laughable that made it onto the pages of marquee magazines, but on the right, this madness gets published in venues where David Frum is deemed beyond the pale.
A bit farther toward the fringes you've got the birthers.
Just now, the GOP nominee was exposed as believing, or pandering to donors who believe, that the 47 percent of Americans who vote Democratic are the same 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes. That is demonstrably false, but many on the right have lined up behind his remarks, and started to shame co-ideologues who dared to criticize the Republican standard-bearer.
Breitbart.com has spent much of the Obama Administration giving its readers the impression that ACORN, the board of NPR, and the question of whether or not the NAACP is racist are urgent priorities for the right. In doing so, it elevated a young man with a hidden camera who tried to lure a female reporter on a boat, intending to seduce her on hidden video and then humiliate her with the footage. Despite that, the young man remains a hero to many movement conservatives.
For them, the ends justify the means.
Choosing what spot to occupy on the ideological spectrum is not what the right should be worried about, important though it surely is. It scarcely matters if the GOP starts titling three more degrees toward social conservatism, or fiscal conservatism, or libertarianism, or centrism, if that agenda is shaped and pursued by a coalition incapable of adjudicating arguments on their merits, or separating fact from fantasy, or maintaining the most basic ethical standards.
This truth was evident during the GOP primary, where voters were presented with unacceptable candidates as diverse as the right itself. So broken are the information outlets Tea Partiers in particular use to assess reality that for months they took Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich seriously as potential or actual presidential contenders. They had every opportunity to see the respective character flaws of these figures; they were mostly self-evident, and persuasively described in great detail by the political press. Ah, but that's the liberal media talking. With that phrase, any huckster can short-circuit the Tea Party reality-assessing apparatus for months. And while movement conservatism has failed for decades to shrink government, it has succeeded spectacularly in creating jobs for hucksters in the private sector.
The civil war the right needs is one waged against the hucksters, whether they're in the marketplace of ideas or the marketplace itself. Victory would mean establishing norms that would've made Roger Ailes too ashamed to air all those months of Glenn Beck; that would've made the Claremont Institute mortified to give Rush Limbaugh a statesmanship award; that would've made Matthew Continetti cringe at the idea of a modeling a conservative publication on what he disdains about liberal publications; norms that would've caused Erick Erickson to apologize for his absurd parade of indefensible statements before it complicated his successful effort to start a CNN gig; and that would make Mitt Romney embarrassed to stand in front of donors uttering untruths.
The right needs to value robust argument more highly. And to denigrate those who subvert it more forcefully. For public discourse is all it has to test ideas and formulate an evolving agenda.
If Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager reflect on why they conduct themselves with more integrity than Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, even though they needn't do so to succeed in talk radio; if the most intellectually honest scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation think about why they hold themselves to a higher standard than the most hackish of their colleagues; if all the people who know better reflect on the reasons for their own behavior, they'd perhaps better appreciate why it is vital to stop staying silent when prominent co-ideologues fall short of the most minimal standards.
Yes, there will always be hucksters. And spending all one's time fighting them is a foolish enterprise.
On the right today, they are so numerous, prominent and shameless, their pathologies so ingrained in right-wing media and politics, their wealth so corrupting to young talent, and their pathologies so seldom challenged by those who know better, that Republicans are operating at a persistent information disadvantage. (Too many believe even their own bullshit.) The Bush Administration showed that it's possible to win at the ballot box anyway -- but that the victory isn't worth much, save an ill-conceived war in the desert, exploding deficits, and a financial crisis. Improving on this metric won't solve all the right's problems, or answer every question about the right way forward, but it would go a long way toward mitigating its least defensible excesses. For some, the resulting improvements would be enough to make the GOP preferable to the Democrats.
As yet, I say to hell with them both.