May 19, 2008

Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism

By: Conor Friedersdorf

The scene is a blind date, the setting a D.C. coffee shop, where a “whip smart, beautiful woman who loves talking politics” waits at a corner table. As you approach, eager to engage her interests, you peek at the cover of her magazine, figuring that if she’s reading National Review or The Weekly Standard the legacy of Ronald Reagan might be the best topic, whereas if she’s thumbing through The Nation or Mother Jones, the better play might be to remark on Barack Obama.

Alas, she is reading New York, the newspaper beside her is the Washington Post, and the tabloid peeking from her laptop bag is The Onion. These publications share a left-of-center sensibility. But none predict her political beliefs.

As a dating dilemma, this is easily solved. Ask her questions! The problem the scene augurs for conservatives and libertarians is more difficult: Mainstream publications give our insights insufficient due, hence the rise of right-of-center outlets. But those publications rarely influence the apolitical, centrists, or liberals, for they are funded by, produced for, and read by those already sympathetic to the right — and mostly ignored by everyone else.

Escaping this ghetto requires understanding why the media slants left. Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics, there isn’t any elite liberal conspiracy at work. Bias creeps in largely because the narrative conventions of journalism are poor at capturing basic conservative and libertarian truths. An instructive example is rent control. A newspaper reporter assigned that topic can easily find a sympathetic family no longer able to afford its longtime apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Their plight is a moving brief for a rent ceiling.

As almost everyone long ago conceded, however, opponents of rent control offer superior counterarguments. Limiting rent degrades the quality of a city’s housing stock, causes shortages as a dearth of new units are built, and spurs a black market where well-connected elites game their way into subsidized flats. A talented reporter, given enough time and space, could craft a narrative that illustrates how rent control ultimately makes poor families worse off. His job is relatively difficult, however, for he can hardly write a pithy anecdotal lead about the hundred families that won’t occupy a non-existent apartment building because a foolish policy eliminated an unknown developer’s incentive to build it.

The right, in other words, has a problem with narrative. The stubborn facts of this world contradict pieties left, right, and libertarian, occassionally forcing each group to revise its thinking. But the core critiques of liberalism intrinsically resist the narrative form. Who can foresee the unintended consequences of government intervention in advance? Who can pinpoint the particular threats to liberty posed by an ever-growing public sector?

Nor is it always easy to make a positive case for a conservative theme. Take the argument for gradual social change, which is predicated on the notion that certain societal traditions add value we do not always fully understand. Even after the breakup of the nuclear family in African-American communities, for example, we cannot explain precisely why the absence of fathers has proven so disastrous, though facts confirm the effect so unambiguously that old conservative warnings are now accepted pop-culture themes.

The difficulty of critiquing flawed liberal positions and asserting alternatives before it’s too late is exacerbated by the conservative intellectual tradition’s lack of penetration into academia. Colleges and journalism schools rarely teach Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. How can journalists unversed in such thinkers recognize when facts validate their ideas?

These asymmetries help explain why the right has sought to discredit the mainstream media while funding its own ideologically conceived outlets. It isn’t just a matter of “playing the refs.” Every political movement has a place for publications where debate among fellow travelers helps refine its most nuanced ideas and where the faithful can be rallied behind them.

The temptation, of course, is to convert that crucible into an echo chamber where only journalism that helps “the movement” is published. An example I’m always struck by is The Weekly Standard’s decision, back in 1997, to pass on Tucker Carlson’s devastating profile of Grover Norquist. As it happens, the excellent piece found a home at The New Republic, a liberal publication that doesn’t shy from occasional attacks on its own side. TNR’s track record of diverse editors and frequent elevation of sound journalism above ideology are reasons I find it an enjoyable read, an occasional influence on my thinking, and far harder to ignore than most magazines whose sensibilities are closer to my own. (Kudos are also due to Reason for its coverage of Ron Paul’s ties to racist newsletters — both the magazine and the libertarian movement are better off for it.)

As the right’s echo chamber grows, the ideas that reverberate weaken. Ghettoizing smart writers within rally-the-base publications is something the left can afford, given the present media landscape, while the scarcity of journalists who grasp right-of-center ideas make their isolation particularly costly. Take a writer whose work I’ve long enjoyed, Jonah Goldberg. He is a smart guy, a capable debater and possesses a rare talent for crafting columns that are laugh-out-loud funny. These qualities could win over liberals on some topics. So I cringed when I saw the original title of his recent book, Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton, assuming that, despite his regular efforts to engage intelligent liberals, even those on the left who regularly engage conservatives would assume bad faith. They did, even after the title changed.

A conservative friend, who shares my aversion to polemically titled projects, recently saw a poll stating that a majority of Americans favor government-run health care, and remarked that our generation needs its own William F. Buckley to stand athwart history.

Yet great as Buckley’s influence and ability was, I’m not sure another Buckley’s what we really need. Instead, I’d prefer another Tom Wolfe, or better yet a dozen. As his generation’s conservative commentators railed against The Great Society, insisting its urban anti-poverty programs encouraged radicalism, bred dependence on the welfare state, and ignored the root causes of unemployment, Mr. Wolfe did something different: reporting. His accounts of the era’s excesses, Radical Chic and Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers, owe their power to narrative drama and specificity. Readers couldn’t help but be impressed by Wolfe’s independent mind and feel that reforms were needed.

Nod along, then, to Wall Street Journal editorials raging against the liberal health care agenda. I’ve written on the Orange County Register op-ed page on the same topic. Were I holding the purse strings to a fund for right-leaning journalists, however, I’d charter a (white!) 12-seat plane for my dozen Tom Wolfe clones, dispatching them to every country whose health-care system Ezra Klein hopes to draw on. I’d make certain my new new journalists understood the strongest critiques of liberalism and of government-run health care. I’d also be sure their ultimate loyalty lay in investigating and rendering the world as it is, priorities that shouldn’t trouble confident conservatives and libertarians.

An exemplar of this reportorial aplomb is Heather MacDonald, whose carefully researched City Journal pieces are written as though an exhaustive airing of facts will inevitably move some readers who doubt her thesis toward its conclusions. Among commentators, Peggy Noonan and George Will are also notable, the former for her ability to cast ideas within compelling mini-narratives, and the latter for the illustrative anecdotes dug up by his research assistants.

In fact, for all my griping, I’m cautiously buoyed by certain young heterodox conservative writersmany of whom routinely create engaging commentaryhonest analysis and serious works of the type that the right needs to flourish and persuade, whether or not you agree with their conclusions (not that they always agree with one another).

But a political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone!

Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project. The nation’s English departments, journalism schools, and mainstream publications teem with talented young liberal reporters who, for all their biases and blind spots, regularly produce stunning narrative writing. It certainly persuades me to embrace certain of their positions on occasion, or at least to modify my own. Will the next generation of left-leaning journalists continue to dominate the stories we tell ourselves as a society, as surely as their ideological cohorts dominate The New YorkerThe New York Times, and Newsweek today? Will liberals continue to produce the bulk of reportage in America, to pen the most ambitious literary non-fiction, and to miss relevant facts and narratives that a reporter more versed in right-leaning political philosophy would’ve caught?

Unless colleges and journalism schools start assigning Burke, Hayek, Friedman, and quite a few others, the answer depends upon whether the right is willing to invest in talented young people who understand conservatism and libertarianism, but whose foremost loyalty is to investigating their world and conveying whatever they find. Were the same resources that built National ReviewThe Weekly Standard, and other right-leaning publications invested in that project, tomorrow’s journalism would afford our ideas their due.

Put another way, the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it. Making this judgment means exhibiting confidence that we are correct more often than not. It means believing that our arguments are not merely relevant, but true. It means trusting that, when examined, the facts and stories of the world will bear out our ideas. Fate has not declared that right-leaning publications shall never be read by liberals. Nor is there a decree that all unaffiliated publications are de facto liberal. Yet as long as the right continues to believe this — and act accordingly — it will, I fear, continue to be true.

–Conor Friedersdorf is a freelance writer and an assistant editor at