The CW

In the course of a National Journal column on how often the conventional wisdom was wrong in 2014, George Condon veered into an interesting question: who sets the CW these days? Is there even any such thing?

In the days when columnists like Walter Lippmann and James Reston reigned, it was clearer who was setting the CW. In a fractured media environment, it is much less clear. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh contends that David Gergen, who worked for several presidents of both parties, used to set the CW. “Whatever he said, whatever he thought, you could count on that being what everybody else in the power clique thought and believed,” Limbaugh said on his show in October. “He was the arbiter, and may still be for many, of political correctness and conventional wisdom.”

But Limbaugh suggested “it may be that that torch is being passed.” He nominated Bloomberg columnists and TV hosts John Heilemann and Mark Halperin as the new arbiters. Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic earlier this year referred to “Ron Fournier and his ilk,” suggesting the National Journal writer is helping set the CW. Others have pointed to print journalists, including Politico‘s Mike Allen, National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein, and The Washington Post‘s Dan Balz. With more immediate impact and the larger platform afforded by television, there are Chuck Todd of NBC, Jake Tapper of CNN, and Brett Baier of Fox.

I suppose you could measure the power of any one CW-setter via an exploration of “narrative arcs” or social media spinoff or sheer repetition. The other way to look at it is that there is a sort of semi-permanent CW perpetuated by a self-referential groups of elites–what Digby and others call “the Village”–whose specific identities are less important than their herd instinct. They always favor bipartisanship, median-voter-theorem driven electoral politics, a big focus on “fiscal discipline,” a “bipartisan foreign policy tradition” that maintains a huge Pentagon and a vast network of international commitments, and deference to technocrats on economic policy.
According to the “Village” theory, pundit analysis of individual events and personalities follows from this general disposition.

While I’ve criticized purveyors of the CW and “the Beltway consensus” and the “MSM” as harshly as anybody, I’m always reluctant to edge over into conspiracy-land in alleging actual complicity in forming a CW, following the general principle that you shouldn’t accuse people of evil when laziness and stupidity are a sufficient explanation. We are all, moreover, guilty of some subservience to the CW, because (a) it affects a lot of what we consider “facts” rather than “opinions,” and (b) it’s not always wrong.

As the last institutional fundraising post notes, fighting the CW has been a big part of WaMo’s tradition. Has believing in a CW become another example of “tilting at windmills?”

What do you think? Is there really a CW any more, or has the term become simply an insult? And who if anyone sets it? Please express your thoughts in the comment thread.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.