The Right Side of the Dial: Part II

Back in February 2009, Republican Party operative Patrick Ruffini denounced what he called the “Joe-the-Plumberization of the GOP”:

If you want to get a sense of how unserious and ungrounded most Americans think the Republican Party is, look no further than how conservatives elevate Joe the Plumber as a spokesman. The movement has become so gimmick-driven that Wurzelbacher will be a conservative hero long after people have forgotten what his legitimate policy beef with Obama was…

In September 2009, as right-wing birtherism was in full flower, Ruffini again condemned the intellectual degeneration of the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement:

As a pretty down-the-line conservative, I don’t believe I am alone in noting with disappointment the trivialization, excessive sloganeering, and pettiness that has overtaken the movement of late. In “The Joe the Plumberization of the GOP,” I argued that conservatives have grown too comfortable with wearing scorn as a badge of honor, content to play sarcastic second fiddle to the dominant culture of academia and Hollywood with second-rate knock-off institutions. A side effect of this has been a tendency to accept conspiracy nuts as a slightly cranky edge case within the broad continuum of conservatism, rather than as a threat to the movement itself…

In founding National Review, Buckley made a point of casting out the conspiracy nuts and the cranks of his day because he saw them as a fundamental threat to a conservatism that was just emerging as a political force. In doing so, he was able to define conservatism for a generation…

The automatic problem that arises when someone who is not a William F. Buckley [criticizes extremism on the right] is that you’re instantly tagged a RINO for calling out something that is objectively and demonstrably false. The space between fact and fiction is confused as a litmus test between right and left. But what if [birthers who write for the right-wing website World Net Daily] are not the true conservatives in this argument? What if the actual test of conservatism was not how fervently you oppose Obama, or where you went to school, or where you pray, but how firmly your conservatism is rooted in First Principles and not personalities or conspiracy?

Within my relatively short lifetime, I still remember a time when success and intellectual achievement were more often than not conservative virtues, and I remember [Buckley] looming large in this framework. Recent Democratic gains within the creative and educated classes have eroded this image, creating a media dynamic where intelligence is seen as aligning with the left within the Democratic Party, and the center within the Republican Party.

That is an untenable position for a conservative movement that needs to generate new ideas and groom future leaders who can speak articulately and persuasively to the whole country. (It’s true that Ronald Reagan was not a book learner, but under the theory of multiple intelligences, he more than held his own.) Before conservatism was a viable political movement, it was a viable intellectual movement, and it was those on the center and in the left who were seen as intellectually slovenly.

This is why there is a unique urgency now to cast out the obscurantists and the conspiracy nuts. We don’t have a Buckley anymore. Our intellectual giants have died off and not being replaced. And preventing the lowest common denominator from filling the void is a constant daily struggle.

In a movement and a party that has largely defined itself outside centers of higher learning in recent years (for good or ill) I believe the time is ripe for a return to Buckleyite [intellectual] conservatism.

Ruffini’s recommendation was infamously ignored, and as Nancy LeTourneau noted last week, some Republicans are now openly expressing regret for having played a direct or indirect role in unleashing the wingnut-media beast. However, Vox’s David Roberts observes that right-wing media radicalism–and its impact on the GOP–will not recede any time soon:

Populist right-wing media has become the primary channel through which conservatives are educated, organized, and activated…A little attention from regional talk-radio hosts can muster hundreds of phone calls to politicians, along with protests and donations. In several cases, right-wing media has coordinated successful primary challenges to members of Congress (see: Eric Cantor).

The result is a GOP that is terrified, above all, of displeasing its most vocal, most ideological, most extreme elements.

The problem is that right-wing media is in no way dependent on the political success of the GOP. In fact, it’s almost the opposite: The more the party establishment fails to deliver on the far right’s (wildly unrealistic) demands, the more the audience feels betrayed, and the angrier it gets. That means more clicks, more phone calls, more engagement. It is to right-wing media’s great benefit for the party to engage in a series of dramatic, doomed protest gestures like shutting down the government or attempting to repeal Obamacare for the 47th time. It stokes the outrage machine…

The party establishment encouraged the rise of the right-wing media and exploited the Tea Party for electoral advantage, but now it has awakened a monster it can’t control.

This raises the obvious question: don’t the Republicans who regret the radicalism of right-wing media have a moral obligation to dismantle the weapon they helped to build–by working to develop a less radical alternative to that media apparatus?

(Next: Will we ever have a moderate Republican media?)

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.