Inbreeding the Conservative Movement
I don’t often overtly acknowledge the various blogs and sources of information and opinion I collect and assemble. After all, what is a writer without private sources? However, I do have to tip my hat to Julian Sanchez, whose politics and areas of interest overlap with mine to the point where I would feel entirely irrelevant if he were a little less of a wonkish think-tanker (he works at Cato!). But the value of a writer does reassure me about that last point: a writer’s task is to translate raw events and phenomena into something intelligible and readable for that writer’s audience. And as I’ve said before, cascades and relays of writers-to-audiences are necessary for our new democratic mediascape. So, someone like Julian Sanchez broadcasts his opinion, I pick it up and digest it along with myriad other sources, and then I regurgitate some amalgam of information and opinion to you, dear readers, who will in turn digest and think and communicate on down the line (hopefully). My own translations of the universe of information tend to list toward the philosophical, pithy, and abstruse, and for some reason my audience actually reads them.
That media and communication “food chain” probably seems obvious and intuitive to you, wise reader, but somehow the conservative movement seems to be (sub-)consciously averse to that inclusive and open (in the sense that Popper used it) structure as Sanchez eruditely points out:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become.
And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.
Indeed, the most salient point about conservatism in the era of Obama seems to be that the Republican Party has encouraged self-definition by opposition and negation of the other, rather than coherence to a set of ideals. Hence, David Frum’s deplorable ouster from AEI. As Sanchez explains in another fantastic piece that accurately describes the self-professed motivations of conservative giants such as Rupert Murdoch (more about this in another post), conservatives are reacting to their angst with the world of the “elite.” This anti-elitism usually comes from simple political disagreement with people perceived to be elites, rather than an overarching systematic exclusion of conservatives, but the conservative response is an overt and organized opposition to such “media bias.” Conservatives are reacting to the slap in the face they see the elitists’ world deal when they are exposed to a larger and more cosmopolitan set of world-views than their own provincial views would have countenanced.
The [news media's] output may have varying degrees of liberal slant, but The New York Times is not fundamentally trying to be liberal; they’re trying to get it right. Their conservative counterparts—your Fox News and your Washington Times—always seem to be trying, first and foremost, to be the conservative alternative. And that has implications for how each of them connects to the whole ecosystem of media: Getting an accurate portrait is institutionally secondary to promoting the accounts and interpretations that support the worldview and undermine the liberal media narrative.
Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation, bolstered by the sudden demand that what was once tacit and given be explicitly defended.
Ressentiment is the word we may be looking for here: “Ressentiment is a hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, an assignation of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the ’cause’ generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.” Sound like any conservatives you know? Sanchez applies it to Republicans quite poignantly:
Conservatism is a political philosophy; the farce currently performing under that marquee is an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag.
Ironically enough, discounting Republicans as mere oppositionists seems like a somewhat “unscientific” attack, given that their argumentative response to such labeling is guaranteed to be in the negative. It seems unlikely that the hypothesis is falsifiable, which almost makes the theory itself subject to its own critique. But go on; tell your conservative friends they’re nothing but naysayers. See how they react.