Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pundit war!

Ross Douthat and Patrick Ruffini and Mark Steyn go at it in a cage match of punditry today over accusations of establishment elitism in the conservative pundit class. There's so much action it's hard to know where to start, but let's try Ruffini:
In the midst of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, conservative establishment pundits appear to blame John McCain's inability to seal the deal not on the misfortune of being the candidate of the in-party of his thin track record on economic matters or his jarring response to the crisis, but on a hockey mom from Alaska. Who just happens to be part of the grassroots conservative / outsider / Mark Levin circle. Who, from a conservative point of view, happens to be the one bit of relief we've gotten from this crap sandwich of a political
environment that's been going on for three years now.
Feel free to read the whole thing. Meanwhile, Douthat responds by arguing (naturally) in defense of the GOP elite:
[I]f you want Sarah Palin as your standard-bearer, you need a Brooks, or someone like him, at the table when her speeches are being written and her policy positions are being hashed out. You need elites, and you especially need elites who work and live outside the conservative cocoon, and who have a sense of how to talk to people who aren't already persuaded that a vote for Obama is a vote for socialism and surrender.
I'm sure I've said this before somewhere, but just in case you missed it: F--- you, Ross Douthat. F--- you and your imperious assumption that only Harvard-educated a$$holes like yourself are capable of writing speeches and policy papers.

Listen to me, you arrogant punk: I used to be a Democrat. When you were still in diapers, I voted for Walter Mondale! Sixteen years ago, I had a Clinton-Gore bumper sticker plastered on my old Chevy Impala. Don't you think I know a thing or two (and a helluva lot more than you) about what can persuade born-and-bred Democrats to abandon their class-warfare ideas and embrace limited government as the better answer to their grievances? "Libertarian populism," look it up.

Something else, Ross: I've got T-shirts older than you, kid. Nothing has corrupted the conservative movement more than this tendency to grab super-bright 20-somethings right out of elite universities and elevate them to positions in the commentariat before they've passed any markers of adulthood other than graduating school. No wife, no kids, no mortgage, no work experience in any field outside journalism or public policy, and long before you're 30, you -- yes, you, Ross Douthat -- are assumed to have the insight to tell the rest of us what's what.

When I was your age, Ross, I was covering high-school sports in Calhoun, Ga., having previously worked as a forklift driver, nightclub DJ, rock-and-roll singer, furniture delivery man, and in just about every sort of food-service gig you can imagine. So when it comes to figuring out how to sell a conservative message to blue-collar voters, I'm not going to seek answers from a soft-handed punk from Connecticut sharing insights based on his experiences as an intern at National Review.

OK, my spleen feels much better now. So I'll quit pounding on Douthat and let Mark Steyn take his turn:
[O]ur chattering classes are uniquely concentrated in Ross Douthat's DC/NY corridor. Isn't this a little odd? And doesn't it pose particular problems for Republicans? Conservative elites live in liberal jurisdictions. . . . Whatever one feels about what Ross Douthat calls the "conservative cocoon", it elects conservative mayors, conservative school boards, conservative road agents, conservative state reps, and conservative governors: it's the only place to go to experience conservatism as applied in practice. On the other hand, Mr Douthat's aforementioned corridor will once in a while elect a Michael Bloomberg or a Christie Whitman, and that's it: conservatism remains strictly a theoretical proposition.
That's why the metropolitan sneers about the size of Wasilla were extremely ill-advised, and not just because of the implication that the mayors of, say, New Orleans, San Francisco or Detroit are therefore more qualified to be in the White House. If it weren't for small towns, suburbs and rural districts, there would be no conservative government at all.
Dead on target, and please feel free to read the whole thing. But Douthat -- who is, in all truth, quite nearly as smart as he thinks he is -- then comes back to clarify:
Sarah Palin's Alaska is not the conservative cocoon. Neither is Tim Pawlenty's Minnesota, or Mike Huckabee's Arkansas, or any other place out in flyover country where a populist conservative became a popular and successful governor. The cocoon is the constellation of mutually-reinforcing conservative institutions - think tanks and advocacy groups, talk-radio shows and websites - that can create the same echo-chamber effect that the liberal media has long produced, and that at times makes it difficult for the Right to grapple with reality.
Here, then, Ross actually make a valid point. There is in fact a double echo-chamber effect, one where Republicans listen only to themselves, and another caused by the institutional biases of Washington:
See, Washington is like a big echo chamber. People sit around talking to their friends, and reading their own press releases, and next thing you know, they start thinking they're so smart, and so powerful, and so important that they don't have to pay attention to those microscopic pygmies called the voters. . . .
(That's from a speech I gave to a Republican banquet in Winston-Salem, N.C., in December. I point this out, just in case anyone was harboring an illusion that only Harvard-educated a$$holes can write speeches.)

Republicans in Washington lost touch with the voters, but still kept winning elections for a while, and in the process, they developed a contempt for the people who elected them. This is the only possible explanation for the GOP's repeated push for amnesty in 2006 and 2007. The people in Ohio who elected Mike DeWine to the Senate didn't want amnesty, and when he voted for amnesty, the people in Ohio decided they didn't want Mike DeWine.

It would be in the best interests of the Republican Party if all supporters of amnesty were defeated in GOP primaries. (F--- you, Chris Cannon.) But if the party elite prefer cheap illegal workers to Republican voters, the GOP will find itself losing general elections.

So any discussion of why Barack Obama is winning this election must begin with a discussion of . . . personnel. And let me give you a clue: Sarah Palin is not the problem.

UPDATE: A third-party spoiler might cost Republican Sen. Gordon Smith re-election in Oregon. F--- you, Gordon Smith.

UPDATE II: Daniel Larison:
One of the most important populist goals ought to be entitlement reform, since there are few things more threatening to the long-term well-being of the people than exploding entitlement costs, but that would entail controversy, political risk and telling the public unpleasant truths about the unsustainability of existing entitlements and the folly of adding on more. What distinguishes real populism from cheap demaoguery, among other things, is the willingness to tell people that they cannot have it all and to govern as if that were true.
Very good point. But Alabama's playing Ole Miss now, so there's no time to talk policy. I'll leave that to the pointy-heads.

UPDATE III: Jennifer Rubin:
[C]onservative pundits in the NY-DC corridor should sneer less and learn more from "practicing" conservatives in the heartland. Put differently, if it there weren't a lot of Sarah Palins, there wouldn't be many people reading what the pundits write, let alone implementing their ideas. The alternative is that conservatism goes the way of Latin -- a dead language.
There is a tendency of blue-state Republicans (and I'm thinking of Rudy Giuliani here) to think that the secret of GOP success is to impose their liberal views on cultural issues (immigration, gun control, gay rights, etc.) on the red-state majority of the party, while trying to pacify social conservatives with symbolic gestures (e.g., Terri Schiavo). This is what we call bass-ackward.

UPDATE IV: Linked at the American Thinker and Daniel Larison cracks back at "reflexive obeisance to whatever ill-considered Republican policy was being pushed by the leadership or administration at the time," etc. Larison also throws in a dig that appears to reference my pan of Rod Dreher's "crunchy conservatism."

The crunchies can't shake Dreher's conceit (borrowed from the Keynesian Buddhist, E.F. Schumacher) that to advocate economic freedom is to endorse "the culture of acquisition and consumption." Conservatism is a philosophy of government, not a matter of lifestyle preferences. Conservatism isn't about buying organic groceries at Whole Foods or sitting around quoting Russell Kirk, it's about constitutional government.

I'd love to argue more about this, but right now Alabama is fighting to hold on against Ole Miss in the fourth quarter, and if nothing else, I am a loyal Bamacon.

UPDATE V: Making enemies and influencing people -- now Conor Friedersdorf is taking exception to my "I've got T-shirts older than you, kid" stance about the "corrupting influence" of young know-it-alls. I would remind Conor that Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff got their start together in College Republicans. By the time Reed was 28, he was executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Immersing yourself in Washington right out of college might be a shrewd career move, but it narrows your horizons. There is a whole 'nother world beyond Washington, where nobody gives a damn about the stuff that people in DC take so seriously.

It is an undeniable fact that Washington has a surplus of ambitious young people with degrees from elite institutions who don't want to pay their dues -- as if they believe their SAT scores entitle them to an exemption from the ordinary drudgery of learning the ropes, crawling before they walk, etc. They consider themselves failures if they're not some kind of big shot by the time they're 30.

That kind of fanatical ambition is dangerous, and its superabundance in Washington is one reason the place has such a reputation for treachery. They're all so busy seeming, nobody dares merely to be.

Thank God, I was a 38-year-old married father of three before I got here. And thank God none of my kids has shown interest in that high-pressure fast-track treadmill that breeds today's Young Meritocrats.

UPDATE VI: Linked by Matt Lewis at Townhall -- thanks.

BTW, I have friends who are friends with Ross Douthat, and who assure me that Ross is genuinely a nice guy. Sorry, but anybody who gets a contract from Harper Collins at age 24 to write a book about "what it's like to go to Harvard" has committed a cosmological injustice for which atonement must be exacted.

At any rate, if any reader wants to see a less vituperative exposition of what I'm actually trying to say here, try this mini-essay.


  1. Another "barbarian at the gate"-it was getting pretty lonely out here! Thank you!
    My wife who is conservative and who grew up in an academic household outside of Cambridge (she's still in the will as far as we can tell)doesn't understand why I was and am thrilled with Sarah and I truly feel that her Ivy League upbringing and education can't understand the blue collar aspect of life that I grew up with, notwithstanding my own educational background. As I always say to here when her "Boston" is showing- "there are a hell of a lot more of "us" than there are of "you".
    I think that our "elites" need to remember that our movement has had as its more fertile breeding grounds the left coast than it has the east. Ronaldus Magnus was from my home State and Barry Goldwater was certainly not educated at St. Albans.
    In the coming years I believe we're going to see an open rebellion within the movement, and perhaps that's a good thing; William Kristol doesn't speak for me-I get the feeling that he looks for a sink to wash his hands everytime he has to interract with someone he perceives as not as intellectually superior as he is.

  2. Good post, RSM. This entire contretemps reminds why I'm glad I'm not a Republican. It's bad enough that the Dem party has moved so far to the left that it has passed the realm of dragons and is heading over the edge--now we get to watch this knife-in-the-back "punditry" in the Republican realm. (Flat Earth analogy courtesy Bitter Clingers, Inc.)

    Here's the big thing of which these geniuses of the inner circle are ignorant: The center of power is not geographic anymore. It's the network. People in Wasilla can learn just as much as someone stuck in the damp confines of the Ivy Leagues. People in flyover country are publishing, and producing. People in Texas and Montana are able to learn about any subject as fast as they want. And kids today swim in a sea of connectedness that enables them to know more in a few months than many of us learned in several years of campus-limited, education-reformer-taught "academia."

    As I have written in emails to some of the better thinkers in the blogosphere, the sad aspect is how limited the thinking by the "elites" has become, and how behind the times they have fallen. You are correct: they need to get out more. Maybe read--and participate in--a blog about networks, electronics, or maybe even Philosophy, like the rest of us "morons" do.