I lost a lot of time I can never get back reading Sam Tanenhaus's New York Times Magazine cover story on the reform conservative movement. (Title: "Can the G.O.P. Be a Party of Ideas?" I'll answer that: No.) John Quiggin at Crooked Timber says most of what needs to be said about the arrticle and the reformicons; I'd just like to note one anecdote involving John Murray, Eric Cantor's deputy chief of staff, who got involved in reformicon efforts:
[In 2013, Murray] commissioned polls and focus groups with middle-class voters in four midsize cities. Researchers sorted respondents into two groups of around a dozen people. One group consisted of self-identified Tea Party supporters, the other of moderate swing voters. What was interesting to Murray was that, aside from a few hot-button ideological issues, the two groups sounded alike. Their paramount concerns were nagging "kitchen-table-centric" issues. In Murray's paraphrase: "Fuel prices are up. Grocery bills are up. The kids are home now, but who's going to help us get them to college?" The respondents were not Obama fans, but they also felt as if the Republicans weren't helping them, either.I don't want you to think I'm turning into Ralph Nader or Conor Friedersdorf, but this doesn't really surprise me -- I think, deep down, the crazier right-wingers do feel like the rest of us and want solutions for the same problems we want solved.
But it doesn't matter, because these people are worked up into a frenzy day after day, hour after hour, by right-wing media, so it's naive to think that we're all pretty much the same "aside from a few hot-button issues." "Hot-button issues" become the central organizing principle of crazy-base thinking. Those people think fuel prices are up because Barack Obama secretly want to destroy capitalism and bring about the global caliphate. They think grocery bills are up because he has a radical agenda of government dependency-as-serfdom. Craziness isn't some extra thing that makes the crazies slightly different from everyone else, despite large areas of agreement; to the crazies, the craziness is the essence of their worldview.
If reform conservatives want to make inroads, they can't just keep publishing their dry journals and books and hoping that fellow elites will take notice. They're just not going to break through as long as Fox News and talk radio continue to exist.
Tanenhaus begin his article at a reformicon conference attended by Cantor, who's portrayed as having had a road-to-Damascus conversion to the reform cause:
Cantor's rise in power and visibility over the last six years was largely a result of his role in devising the Republican strategy of unbending opposition -- always, everywhere -- to anything Barack Obama proposed. Cantor built strong ties to Wall Street and to wealthy, conservative donors, and yet here he was, too, espousing the new reformist principles: that the G.O.P. was letting down its actual base, by which he meant "the bulk of the people in this country" who "are feeling that this country is not there for them." Sounding like a graduate of the Joe Biden School of Empathy, Cantor told the audience that he himself has found, when imagining a path toward better policy, that "it's very helpful sometimes to think about the working family or maybe the single mom who at the end of a hard day has put her kids to bed and then has to face how she is going to make ends meet and pay the bills at the end of the month."Fat lot of good that did him, as we know now. Republican voters don't want to hear that crap. The right-wing media and GOP politicians -- including, in the past, Cantor himself -- have conditioned the party's voters to cultivate hate, not empathy. Cantor stopped fanning the hate flames, and now Cantor is electoral roadkill.
... this is not a hospitable moment for serious-minded intellectuals on the right. The place once claimed in the culture by [Irving] Kristol and William F. Buckley Jr. is now inhabited by Fox News hosts and Rush Limbaugh and the radio host Laura Ingraham, who is widely credited with mobilizing the troops who expelled Eric Cantor from Congress.I know Tanenhaus knows this (he's been working on a Buckley biography for years), but he doesn't mention the fact that Buckley publicly embraced Limbaugh, which made Limbaugh the current right's idea of an intellectual, as Zev Chafets wrote a few years ago:
William F. Buckley Jr., the publisher of The National Review, saw the young broadcaster's star power and took Limbaugh into his orbit. Limbaugh was honored by the attention.That was the end of any hope that this generation's right-wingers might embrace anything deeper than rage-inducing soundbites and catchphrases. The patron saint of conservative intellectuals endorsed two know-nothings -- Limbaugh and Ronald Reagan -- and now the right is stuck in the swamp of absolutist ignorance they made the right's home.
"I grew up on National Review and Mr. Buckley," Limbaugh told me. "Aside from my father, he's the most influential man in my life." In Buckley's circle he was an incongruous figure -- provincial, self-educated and full of declasse rock-and-roll enthusiasm. But Buckley took Limbaugh seriously, cultivated him, promoted him and saw to it that he connected with the right people.
Buckley died a few days after my first visit to Limbaugh in Florida. Limbaugh mourned him on the air and off. But he also had a sense that, with Buckley's passing, he now became the movement's elder statesman. Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor at The National Review, watched Limbaugh's tutelage under Buckley, and he takes Limbaugh seriously as a polemicist and public intellectual. "I hired a lot of people over the years, fancy kids from elite schools, and I always asked, 'How did you become a conservative?' Many of them said, 'Listening to Rush Limbaugh.' And often they'd add, 'Behind my parents' back.'"