A long-simmering generational battle in the conservative movement is boiling over after last week’s shellacking, with younger operatives and ideologues going public with calls that Republicans break free from a political-media cocoon that has become intellectually suffocating and self-defeating.
GOP officials have chalked up their electoral thumping to everything from the country’s changing demographics to an ill-timed hurricane and failed voter turn-out system, but a cadre of Republicans under 50 believes the party’s problem is even more fundamental.
The party is suffering from Pauline Kaelism.
Kael was The New Yorker movie critic who famously said in the wake of Richard M. Nixon’s 49-state landslide in 1972 that she knew only one person who voted for Nixon.
Now, many young Republicans worry, they are the ones in the hermetically sealed bubble — except it’s not confined to geography but rather a self-selected media universe in which only their own views are reinforced and an alternate reality is reflected.
Hence the initial denial and subsequent shock on the right that the country would not only reelect President Barack Obama — but do so with 332 electoral votes.
“What Republicans did so successfully, starting with critiquing the media and then creating our own outlets, became a bubble onto itself,” said Ross Douthat, the 32-year-old New York Times columnist.
“The right is suffering from an era of on-demand reality,” is how 30-year-old old think tanker and writer Ben Domenech put it.
Citing Kael, one of the most prominent Republicans in the George W. Bush era complained: “We have become what the left was in the ’70s — insular.”
In this reassuring conservative pocket universe, Rasmussen polls are gospel, the Benghazi controversy is worse than Watergate, “Fair and Balanced” isn’t just marketing and Dick Morris is a political seer.
Even this past weekend, days after a convincing Obama win, it wasn’t hard to find fringes of the right who are convinced he did so only because of mass voter fraud and mysteriously missing military ballots. Like a political version of “Thelma and Louise,” some far-right conservatives are in such denial that they’d just as soon keep on driving off the cliff than face up to a reality they’d rather not confront.
But if the Fox News-talk radio-Drudge Report axis is the most powerful force in the conservative cocoon, technology has rendered even those outlets as merely the most popular destinations in the choose-your-own-adventure news world in which consumers are more empowered than ever.
Facebook and Twitter feeds along with email in-boxes have taken the place of the old newspaper front page, except that the consumer is now entirely in charge of what he or she sees each day and can largely shut out dissenting voices. It’s the great irony of the Internet era: People have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views.
“The Internet amplifies talk radio and cable news, and provides distribution for other sources like Newsmax,” said Trey Grayson, 40, the former Kentucky secretary of state and the current head of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “Then your friends, who usually agree with you, disseminate the same stories on Facebook and Twitter. And you assume that everyone agrees with you!”
Grayson continued: “It’s very striking for me living in Cambridge now. My Facebook feed, which is full of mostly conservatives from Kentucky, contains very different links to articles or topics than what I see in Cambridge. It is sort of the reverse up here. They don’t understand how anyone would eat Chick-fil-A, watch college sports or hold pro-life views.”
“Social media has made it easier to self-select,” added 45-year-old GOP strategist Bruce Haynes. “Who do you follow on Twitter, who do you friend on Facebook? Do they all look the same and say the same things? If so, you’ve created a universe for yourself that is wedded to its own self-fulfilling prophecies.”
Like Grayson, Haynes and many of the approximately two-dozen young Republicans interviewed for this story noted that Democrats have their own self-reassuring echo chambers.
What worries Republicans, though, is that their Kaelism may be harder to overcome in the short term.
“Unfortunately, for us Republicans who want to rebuild this party, the echo chamber [now] is louder and more difficult to overcome,” said Grayson.
That’s partly because of the difference between the two cocoons in the two parties.
First, the Al Sharptons and Rachel Maddows of the left don’t have the same influence as their counterparts on the right. There are as many, if not more, NPR-oriented liberals as MSNBC devotees on the left; the Democratic media ecosystem is larger and more diverse.
Further, and more importantly, the Democratic Party has a leader in Obama who for over four years has sought to appeal to a majority of Americans for the obvious political reasons.
“Being a Democrat means being identified with Barack Obama, not Ed Schultz and Martin Bashir,” said Douthat, citing two liberal MSNBC hosts.
Conversely, for nearly six years, since President Bush’s second term went south, Republicans have been effectively without a leader. And into that vacuum has stepped a series of conservative figures whose incentives in most cases are not to win votes but to make money and score ratings by being provocative and even outlandish.
“Their bottom line is their main goal, but that doesn’t mean they’re serving the population that buys their books,” said Domenech.
And this, say next-generation Republicans, is where cocoonism has been detrimental to the cause.
The tension between the profit- and ratings-driven right — call them entertainment-based conservatives — and conservatives focused on ideas (the thinkers) and winning (the operatives) has never been more evident.
The latter group worries that too many on the right are credulous about the former.
“Dick Morris is a joke to every smart conservative in Washington and most every smart conservative under the age of 40 in America,” said Douthat. “The problem is that most of the people watching Dick Morris don’t know that.”
The egghead-hack coalition believes that the entertainment-based conservatives create an atmosphere that enables flawed down-ballot candidates, creates a cartoonish presidential primary and blocks needed policy reforms, and generally leave an odor on the party that turns off swing voters.
It even fosters an atmosphere in which there’s a disconnect with the ostensible party leaders.
Consider: In the fall of the past two presidential campaigns, those in the conservative cocoon were talking about, respectively, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Obama as a black radical, and the seemingly impeachment-worthy scandal surrounding the deaths of U.S. officials in Libya. Meanwhile, on the actual campaign trail, John McCain and Mitt Romney showed little interest in even mentioning either topic.
And the entertainers’ power isn’t just with gullible grass-roots activists who are likely to believe whatever nefarious rumor about Obama is forwarded to them in an e-mail chain — it’s with donors, too.
Outside of Washington, New York and state capitals, the big conservative givers are as likely to have read Ed Klein’s Obama book and seen Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary “2016,” and generally parrot whatever they just heard on Fox News as the old lady stuffing envelopes at county GOP headquarters.
“One of the reasons the entertainment complex has the influence they do is because the people who are supposed to be responsible figures in the party, those who fund the campaigns, have bought into this apocalyptic world view,” said Douthat.
More than a few Republicans said it was such donors whom Romney was trying to impress when he infamously riffed about the “47 percent,” a variation of the makers-versus-takers world view that has become popular in the conservative cocoon (Rush Limbaugh has called Obama “Santa Claus” since Election Day).
The tension between entertainers and operatives-thinkers may have come into sharpest relief in the prolonged, and for many Republicans, painful 2012 GOP primary. The thinkers and the operatives cringed at the umpteen debates and carnival-like procession of candidates with little chance of landing in the Oval Office.
“Look at Newt Inc., [Herman] Cain and [Michele] Bachmann,” sighed Haynes. “What’s the purpose of entering a presidential primary anymore?”
Suggesting the incentives for getting in the race now owe as much to fame as to winning the job, Haynes added: “If that market didn’t exist, what would our primary look like?”
The sexual harassment scandal around Cain offered a vivid example of the different goals of the two groups. To the entertainment-based right, it was a great opportunity to rally the faithful against a purportedly liberal media targeting a black conservative. It touched almost every erogenous zone for the likes of Rush Limbaugh. But for the operatives and thinkers, the story threatened to tarnish the GOP with a sex scandal and make a martyr out of a marginal figure they were already cringing over before POLITICO reported the harassment charges.
Long after the primary ended, the entertainment-based right was still promoting figures that many in the GOP believe are harmful to the party’s brand. Take Donald Trump, who made regular appearances on “Fox & Friends” all year and delighted in pushing the discredited idea that Obama wasn’t born in America. Why energize black voters and turn off moderates broadly by elevating a buffoonish figure questioning the president’s legitimacy? Because it’s good box office. (To be sure, other nonpartisan outlets, including POLITICO, not to mention Romney himself, did their share of enabling Trump).
“It’s like a weird version of identity politics for people who like trash culture and reality TV,” said Douthat of Trump.
This same financial-political tension also arose two years ago in one of the most high-profile GOP Senate primaries in the country between Grayson and Rand Paul. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, worried that his hand-picked candidate wasn’t getting equal time on Fox to make his case, called Fox President Roger Ailes to ask that Grayson get similar treatment as the oft-interviewed Paul, according to a source familiar with the call. Ailes, who consulted on McConnell’s first Senate race, had tough news for his old friend: Paul was just a better draw.
Some younger conservatives worry that the effects of cocoonism are just as evident after the race as before — and not only in the disbelief that Obama won. The knee-jerk reaction by some on the right to Romney’s poor performance with Hispanics has been to simply say that all will be well with the party if they pass an immigration bill and elevate Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
But to many next-generation Republicans, this smacks of tokenism and is more than a tad patronizing.
“They just want to put a sombrero on the Republican elephant,” said one Latino GOP operative, who didn’t want to be identified discussing such a sensitive topic.
Similarly, Haynes fretted that “the mistake Republicans are going to make is thinking this is a demographic and political problem and not a social and cultural problem. You can’t fix this with Orca (the Romney campaign’s ill-fated GOTV software) or iPad apps or to some extent even running Hispanic candidates.”
To young Republican strategists and writers, a fundamental shift of how the party communicates is required. That doesn’t mean delegitimizing hugely popular and powerful outlets on the right, but rather transcending them.
“Communicating to the country’s changing demographics and outside of the Fox News echo chamber is a strategic imperative,” said GOP operative Phil Musser, 40.
“The rise of conservative media has been one of the best things to ever happen to the conservative movement. It has helped us reach new voters, has helped with voter persuasion and even motivation,” said GOP strategist Todd Harris, 41. “But with all the positives, there is this fact: If all you did was watch and read the conservative media, you were probably pretty shocked at what happened Tuesday. There’s a huge and ever-growing segment of the vote that Republicans just aren’t talking to and in some cases didn’t even know existed.”
The good news, say the young Republicans, is that there’s hope for them to appeal more widely. They look no further than to 2004, when liberals were in disbelief that America had reelected George W. Bush. “Jesusland” was the name of the famous map of the country showing where Bush had won.
But instead of inveighing against the purported theocracy the country had become, Obama and his aides began to plot how they could appeal to a broad coalition of voters.
Younger Republicans are confident that they, too, will take over the party and reorient it to accommodate a more tolerant country.
“I expect that in the years to come, a class of young and up-and-coming Republican practitioners will exert a greater degree of influence on how the party’s outreach to key groups is handled and ensure that the tone and tenor of our message is reflective of today’s society,” said Jon Downs, 35, a Republican media consultant.
But these Republicans know a degree of self-examination is required.
“In some communities, like with African-Americans, it’s simply unacceptable to be a Republican. This is a cultural phenomenon,” said Haynes. “Who do you go to church with, who do you send your kids to school with? Are enough Republicans socially and culturally engaged with folks who don’t look like themselves?”
Or, as Domenech put it: “Conservatives may be content to stay in a bubble and yell about Benghazi, but it doesn’t help the cause in the long term.”
What’s needed, he said, is to develop new institutions that will engage conservatives on the issues that the broader country is focused on.
He cited the much-buzzed-about piece in The Atlantic earlier this year about whether women can have successful careers and devote ample attention to child-rearing as a conversation conservatives should have gotten in on.
“We need to play the long game on how people engage in culture and society,” Domenech said. “Conservatives and the right generally have a lot to say, but it’s going to require more than a place to discuss the latest campaign or the New Black Panthers.”