Deep in the mists of history there was a time when Glenn Beck was a lowly radio DJ, Michelle Malkin was a teenage anchor baby, and Bill O’Reilly was an actual journalist. Off in an obscure corner of the media universe the right wing political entertainment complex roared into existence. On a radio station in central California, a blowhard named Morton Downey, Jr. blazed a trail of high-volume, bigoted disinformation that would balloon into a powerful political entertainment genre.
He was fired from his AM radio show on Sacramento’s KFBK in 1984 after a racist outburst against an Asian-American local political figure. Station management decided to replace his dark, mean-spirited antics with a more playful personality. Downey went on to build a brief, but stunningly successful television career.
And what happened to the sunny youngster who took his place? Into Downey’s clown-shoes stepped a man born to fill them, Rush Limbaugh.
A previous post outlined six elements of the Republican coalition that must be realigned to restore the party’s national relevance. Communication and coordination among different silos will be important. However, it is probably among the punditry that the first visible signs of a Republican realignment will emerge. Looking back on how a previous generation of pundits drove the GOP into a ditch could offer insights on how a new generation might tow the party back out.
Downey, Coulter, Limbaugh and others emerged to stardom at a pivotal moment. Channeling the insecurities of a generation frightened by the loss of their supremacy, they helped white racial angst complete the drift from its longtime home in the Democratic right to its present place in the Republican center. Step-by-step they reinterpreted an older Republican policy template centered on commercial and professional interests to fit the needs of white voters desperate to protect their culture from assimilation. Talk radio developed a sort of parallel language that allowed white political figures to continue to leverage race as a tool without using the discredited rhetoric of the previous generation.
Pundits matter. They matter more now, in a world of ubiquitous information and disinformation, than they did nearly a century ago when Father Coughlin was extolling Fascism on his popular radio show. We often think of them as the people who appear on TV to reduce some complex subject to a three-sentence sound bite, but that role is the tip of the rhetorical iceberg. What crude pundit-entertainers like Ann Coulter did to the Republican Party could also be used as a force for reform.
Before Fox News and the political entertainment complex emerged, pundits were mostly researchers and journalists. Many worked in Washington “think tanks,” organizations funded to provide expertise and credible research for political figures. That infrastructure still exists, but it has been stripped of independence, leading to a massive, sustained brain-drain. There was a time when this collection of institutions was a particular Republican strength. Those days are behind us.
Pundits deliver two primary services. First, they act as the sheep dogs of acceptable partisan discourse, defining the range of legitimate opinion among the various tribes on the recognized political spectrum. Their other function is to act as mediators, evaluating policy options and translating them to the general public. In this role they often overlap with think tanks. In fact, many of the most prominent pundits all over the spectrum draw their income from think tanks, or did at some point in their careers.
Downey’s heirs fit nowhere in this neat picture. Few remember, but there was a time when it mattered whether a pundit was right. Winning an argument on the McLaughlin Group by inventing your own facts could seriously dent a career. That now-quaint ethical boundary made sense in an era in which pundits were almost all journalists, former political figures, or academics. They belonged to a kind of loose, Northeastern fraternity capable of exercising some accountability on its members. Such constraints start to make less sense when the purpose of punditry shifts. If pundits exist less to mediate ideas than to activate a political base or deliver a good show, then accuracy becomes secondary (or perhaps irrelevant).
Republicans, and to a lesser extent Democrats as well, are trapped inside a model of political information processing spawned by Downey and honed by his mutant descendants. Many if not most of the pundits who remain in the older GOP infrastructure are solid, rational figures that take seriously the public service dimension of their role. Nevertheless, they are captives to that entertainment-driven model and to the characters who earn seven-figures incomes from exploiting it. Whenever they resist that system, their influence and viability are undermined.
As the political climate for Republicans has grown more toxic, pundits have faced pressure to line up behind a policy agenda that ranges from merely impractical to absurd and occasionally catastrophic. Even the brightest, most insightful human beings can struggle to maintain their hold on reality when their income depends on their ability to demonstrate loyalty to absurd ideological positions.
Pundits find themselves compelled to explain and defend any idea emerging from the farthest corners of the Republican right no matter how dumb, delusional or demonstrably false it may be. An absence of independence among pundits has left Republican voters and officeholders locked in a rhetorical cocoon. The damage goes beyond a lack of criticism or feedback. Pressure toward group-think has robbed Republicans of a vital source for new policy ideas and research.
Think tanks once provided a hedge, a place for pundits to do their work with some degree of insulation from partisan witch-hunts. That reserve has been gutted in recent years. Nearly every institution in the Republican thinkosphere has been bought out by a few wealthy, ideologically motivated donors and pushed toward partisan orthodoxy. Thirty years ago it was the conservative Heritage Foundation that built the policy framework for the Affordable Care Act. Today Heritage is run by the hyper-partisan former Sen. Jim DeMint who earns a seven-figure salary from the organization. Such a bold academic exercise would be absolutely impossible to pursue inside today’s Republican think tanks.
This environment is ripe for a pundit in the mold of John Stewart to emerge from the center-right. A voice as sharp and insistent as the right wing bomb-throwers, yet armed with an attachment to reality and willing to attack the far right – that could be a winning formula. Our problem is that there’s no ecosystem from which someone in that mold could emerge. Republican media is a scorched-earth wasteland of ever-narrowing ideological consistency in which there is “no enemy on the right.”
Breaking this cycle will require more than just vocal dissent from a few prominent pundits. It will require a level of coordination with leaders in other areas, like donors and think tanks, organized and motivated by a new policy template. That template, as explained in a previous piece, will probably have to emerge from outside the party’s sanctioned support structure – a considerable hurdle. Recent history demonstrates why coordination will be so important.
Ask David Frum or Bruce Bartlett what happens when a conservative thinker steps out of line. Each lost their jobs for openly acknowledging some politically uncomfortable realities. Over the decade or so since their demotion, the ideological lock on the profession has tightened.
Republican pundits are now cloistered like medieval nuns, carefully hidden from the kind of cognitive dissonance on which any reliable decision-making depends. There has never been a wealth of demand for Political Science majors. With an always-tentative livelihood in a very expensive city riding on their commitment to orthodoxy, they have learned to shut out ideologically inconvenient realities. Our pundits do less and less thinking as they learn to rely on the safety of talking points issued by Republican brand leaders.
Conditions have grown too severe for Republicans to sit back and wait for a “strong candidate” or an opportunistic news cycle to reverse the party’s fortunes. Decades of dependence on a narrowing racial appeal has walled us inside our own fortress. Building an ecosystem of opinion-makers that can restore some sanity to Republican politics will require parallel action on some other dimensions of this problem, in particular, among the donor base. That means finding new donors who are not committed to the status quo.
Fortunately, the same economic forces that have unleashed The Politics of Crazy have also produced a potential solution to this problem. There is a brand new donor base waiting to be activated, a group of people deeply interested in the country’s future, open to innovative ideas, disenchanted by the current political establishment, and as of yet unconnected to any core ideology or network that could bring them into political relevance.
It may be possible to build an infrastructure of pundits more influential than the Downey generation and a network more powerful than Fox News. It starts with a new template of ideas filtering into a fresh donor base. Win Silicon Valley, own the 21st Century. More on that to come.