Elites Are the Problem -- But That Doesn't Mean What You Think

Birtherism, as I’ve said here before, is a one-way ticket to a cul-de-sac. Obama is president, duly elected, duly sworn in and legitimately exercising the powers of his office. To waste time questioning a past-tense consideration — which is what the Birthers do — cannot lead to any effective critique of Obama as president, which is what the conservative movement needs to be doing.
— Robert Stacy McCain

That paragraph is worth a link. It appears in a post where RSM discusses how the right should handle its birther fringe. The belief that President Obama is a natural born Indonesian shouldn’t cause one to be purged from the conservative movement, he argues. “As always, no matter how much I share certain concerns of the intellectuals, my strongest sympathies are with the grassroots,” he writes. “Intellectuals need the grassroots more than the grassroots need intellectuals.”

This is perfectly defensible as a general statement. But I don’t think it applies very well to the subject that prompted RSM to write: Jon Henke’s efforts to persuade conservative organizations — under threat of boycott — that they should not associate with birther publication World Net Daily.

The way that RSM writes it’s as if Mr. Henke is going door to door, revoking the Republican Party membership of any Fox News watching retiree who doubts President Obama is a citizen. Actually he is targeting other elites like the Republican National Committee. The message: stop enabling the looniest parts of the grassroots to grow and flourish. I am behind that effort. There are worthy conservative causes all over the nation, most of which enjoy grassroots support of one kind or another. Insofar as groups like the RNC funnel resources to World Net Daily, as opposed to those sundry other efforts, they are exacerbating the movement’s woes.

I really appreciate that RSM wrote a well reasoned post that moves this conversation forward. But I often find myself driven crazy by his blog because what he apparently regards as loyalty to the grassroots strikes me as aiding and abetting their betrayal. Mr. McCain is a savvy Inside the Beltway presence, a capable reporter, and a political observer who has been around a long time. “You think you’ve got experience covering politics?” I can hear him taunting. “I’ve got tee-shirts older than you, boy.”

Thus I assume that Mr. McCain isn’t naive — he knows damn well that Human Events cynically sells out the best interests of its readership, that Joseph Farah isn’t engaged in a good faith effort to determine where Barack Obama was born, that Fox News regularly misleads its audience, and that Sarah Palin isn’t actually concerned that health care reform efforts will bring about death panels for down syndrome babies. Indeed, I presume that RSM is aware of far more pernicious examples of Inside the Beltway elites manipulating grassroots conservatives.

My idea of respecting the grassroots is writing about these cynical, dishonest elites, and the gulf that separates their rhetoric from what actually motivates them. Mr. McCain doesn’t ever do this kind of writing. To be fair, doing so consistently would jeopardize his ability to write for some movement publications, and he’s got a family to feed, so I can’t blame him entirely. But this same dynamic, spread across various right-of-center writers, means that there are all sorts of movement conservative elites in positions of power who sell out the base and never get called on it.

What really grates is that when writers try to take on those forces — and yes, I am including myself — Mr. McCain criticizes them as careerists who are disrespecting the grassroots! Questioning Mr. Henke’s boycott efforts, Mr. McCain writes, “I doubt I can be convinced that the greatest contemporary threat to the conservative cause is Joseph Farah.” This is pretty rich coming from a man who has dedicated thousands of words to criticizing Ross Douthat and I.

One problem on the right is that loyalty to the grassroots is defined by how shamelessly one panders to them. Thus a talk radio host who crafts an inaccurate news narrative that plays to the prejudices of his audience is deemed a loyal player advancing the movement’s ends, whereas a blogger who points out how his words mislead listeners about reality is considered an obstacle to the cause who is overly concerned about playing fair.

Unlike some in the media, I don’t regard the grassroots on the right as uniquely insane. I’ve done enough reporting at that level to know that most Americans on the right and left are reasonable people acting in good faith. The right’s fringe problem at this moment in time is one that elites have created as much as any crazy fringe righty. Outfits like Fox News, people like Glenn Beck, talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh — these outfits deliberately play on the worst impulses of the conservative base, stoking their paranoia and misleading them about reality, all for the sake of bigger audiences and greater revenues. That ought to outrage anyone who actually respects the grassroots, and has their best interests at heart.