Late last week an online feud erupted between Michelle Malkin and David Frum. The schism struck me as interesting because — while the two are in some ways mirror opposites — they are quite similar in other ways.
And so I sent a Tweet which pissed off a lot of Malkin’s minions (as you might imagine, they were incredibly reasonable and gracious in their responses to me.)
Unfortunately, a larger point was lost. Frum and Malkin were on my mind because they happened to be fighting. But it could have just as easily been Meghan McCain vs. Ann Coulter – or David Brooks vs. Dick Morris – or any number of other prominent TV pundits who serve as a microcosm of a much larger problem permeating conservative commentary these days: The fact that it’s a schtick!
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket,” goes the old Eric Hoffer saying. There are basically two ways to make it in the conservative pundit business (and don’t kid yourself, it is a business), and that is to either pander to the base by shamelessly throwing them red meat — or to become an establishment media quisling.
If you want money or fame or success, these are your two best options. (There is a third way, but the road is narrow, and that is to be a conservative who is intellectually honest. This lonely road doesn’t have many cheering fans on the sidelines; you’re more likely to find landmines.)
Unfortunately, punditry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has consequences. An army of soi-disant “conservatives” who can be trotted out whenever the media wants to undermine conservatism or a Republican candidate merely allows the media to push their liberal worldview, while simultaneously appearing to present opposing viewpoints.
It would probably be better to have no conservatives on a panel than to have only token conservatives who legitimize the media’s liberal narratives. Just look at the Sunday morning talk show circuit for examples of why this is problematic. I would call them “dupes” if they weren’t in on it.
Conversely, throwing red meat to the base requires one to engage in hyperbole and simplistic solutions which sound discordant (or simply not credible) to a lot of Americans. It also breeds tribalism and discourages innovation or introspection — or even grappling with difficult subjects (if you step out of line, they will hammer you back in line.) Conservatives who might otherwise search for ways to appeal to Hispanics, for example, quickly learn that it is in their personal self interest to simply go back to demanding we “build the danged fence.”
The bottom line is this: Conservative commentary these days is probably just as likely to undermine both Republican candidates and the advancement of conservative philosophy as it is to help them. (One side of the conservative punditry coin serves to furtively undermine today’s Republican politicians, while the other guarantees the structural problems won’t be addressed in the future.)
The phenomenon is on full display right now, as the two sides have taken highly ironic, if equally pernicious, positions regarding the candidacy of Mitt Romney. The Frums of the world — who foisted Mitt Romney on us — are now kicking him as they jump off a sinking ship. Meanwhile, the tea party “Mama Grizzly” set have settled on serving as reflexive Romney shills and hacks (can we count on them to hold Mitt “I like mandates” Romney accountable once in office?)
The problem with conservative commentariat today is that everyone, except the conservative movement and the candidates, of course, profits from it.