On conservative reformers (and the NY/DC corridor)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The spat yesterday between Erick Erickson and Josh Barro was actually productive. Barro conceded that he is, in fact, not a conservative.

Predictably, Erickson took a beating from media elites, who love Barro (indicative of the problem?) and perhaps view Erickson as somewhat of a rube. But Barro’s clarification was important, inasmuch as his claim to fame had been largely based on the misconception that he is a “conservative reformer.

Why does this distinction matter? First, though sincere advice comes in all shapes and sizes, conservatives presumably have a vested interest in policy reforms that preserve fundamental philosophical principles.

Non-conservatives may offer sincere advice, but they lack the same commitment to the tenets of the philosophy, and sometimes may even have questionable motives.

There is also the another problem. Conservatives have long complained about not getting equal (or fair) treatment in the mainstream media. So on the occasion that they are granted a seat on a roundtable, to discuss how conservatives view a given policy, it might be nice if the token conservative chosen is actually, you know, a conservative.

While there is no conservative dogma, it’s probably fair to say that if someone doesn’t even describe himself as a conservative, then the media ought not misrepresent him to their audience as such.

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In any event, Erickson also received some criticism for writing that reform conservatism is problematic “because the people talking about reform are in Washington and New York, the two places least likely to lead any version of conservative reform.”

Over at the DC Examiner, Philip Klein noted that Erickson “embraces a false dichotomy between NY/DC conservatives and those in the rest of the country.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf even dug through Erickson’s oeuvre to discover kind things he said about the DC-based Heritage Foundation.

This, of course, looks like rank hypocrisy.

I’m ambivalent. Residing in “real America” doesn’t make one morally superior. And I think this sort of populist argument is a cheap way to score points. By the same token, I’m sympathetic to Erickson’s argument about the state’s being “laboratories of democracy.”

But here’s the thing. The reason Friedersdorf was able to so easily expose hypocrisy is that the geography thing is really just a simplistic shortcut.

RedState co-founder Ben Domenech and I, for example, both reside in the northern part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is to say, the Washington, DC area. And, of course, I have supported such apostasy as immigration reform. But I doubt that Erickson would reflexively lump Domenech or I into the same category as Barro. Nor do I think he would automatically associate Rich Lowry or Jonah Goldberg — or any number of other conservatives — into his NY/DC corridor rubrik, either.

The real point, I think, is that Barro and many of the other “conservative reformers” would be culturally more comfortable hanging out with Dave Weigel and Ezra Klein — and using the word “derpy.”

This is fine, of course, but (as I think Erickson was implying), it’s outside the mainstream of conservatism.

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UPDATE: Barro tweets this:

The media’s description of him as a “conservative reformer” implies he is a conservative. It’s hard to say how far one should go in correcting other people’s mischaracterizations. But it very well may be their mistake, not his.

Matt K. Lewis