Ringside Interview -- Taking Aim at the Judge's Scoring

John Hawkins and I just finished Round 2 of our debate. His remarks are here. Mine are here. Please do check them out.

We’re due to go one last round, an opportunity to quickly address outstanding disagreements and write up our conclusions. Prior to penning that entry, I’d like to highlight a couple sections from Mr. Hawkins’ latest, because I think they shed light on the ongoing divisions on the right. I’ll link this post when I compose my final piece, and should Mr. Hawkins desire it, I’d gladly publish any response he has to this entry in particular as a full post here at The American Scene.

It is important to know that Mr. Hawkins and I were discussing the right’s failures during the Bush Administration — specifically, a list I offered in my first post that included:

…profligate spending, the prescription drug benefit, the early management of the Iraq War, No Child Left Behind, the financial industry bailout, the Harriet Meyers nomination, attempts at foolhardy immigration reform, rising deficits, a GOP establishment that lost touch with the grassroots, official corruption, etc.

Mr. Hawkins states that these weren’t cases “where conservative politicians pursued conservative positions and were rejected by the American people.” Quite right! As I’ve written many times, the Bush Administration’s failure doesn’t reflect poorly on conservatism. He goes on to assert that the failures of the Bush era were in fact cases “where conservative politicians were convinced by people of Conor’s ideological temperament to abandon conservative governance, and it led to disaster.” This is a groundless, preposterous assertion.

I didn’t favor any item on that list, save the Iraq War, a conflict I wrongly supported when I though that Saddam Hussein possessed biological weapons. It is a bit unclear who Mr. Hawkins regards as belonging to the same “ideological temperament” as me, but there are plenty of so-called dissident conservatives who opposed all those policies, and it is quite a ludicrous to say that any of them managed, via their blog posts at The American Scene or The American Conservative or Reason, or via Crunchy Cons or Grand New Party, to “convince conservative politicians” to pass No Child Left Behind, or to bailout the financial industry, or to let the deficit grow to epic proportions, or to launch the K Street project, or to cozy up to Jack Abramoff.

Aren’t there several obvious reasons why conservative politicians during the Bush era failed to govern according to the ideological principles they espoused? A student of American politics might cite factors including the median voter theorem, the combination of Rovian political strategy and Bush’s bully pulpit, the influence of moneyed donors on Republican elected officials, or any number of other factors that usually explain why politicians break with principle. For Mr. Hawkins, however, these failures are due to people like me — opinion journalists! — convincing conservative politicians to abandon their principles. A premise that wrongheaded explains the irrational antagonism directed at those regarded as dissidents, and as striking is the degree to which Mr. Hawkins seems unable to distinguish between political moderates on one hand and those who critique the conservative movement for its failings on the other.

Elsewhere in the same exchange, I assert that the right would do well to practice “tolerance of dissent and engaging dissenters on the merits of their arguments, rather than heretic-hunting or accusations of disloyalty/bad-faith.” Mr. Hawkins responds, “Does that same standard EVER, EVER, EVER get applied to people like David Brooks, David Frum, or for that matter, Conor Friedersdorf? Why do the people who get accused of being racists, xenophobes, and too dumb to understand politics always have to be the ones who forgive while the same blockheads who never learn from their mistakes insist on getting their way again?” This causes Mark Thompson at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen to note, “The first punch in the combination on racism and xenophobia hits home hard – it’s tough to earn someone’s trust if you’re making claims like that about them.”

In fact, this paints another inaccurate portrait of dissident conservatives. Where have David Frum, David Brooks, or I — or any of the other dissidents with whom we’re familiar — claimed that folks on the right who disagree with us are racists and xenophobes? For my part, I’ve explicitly written that figures as diverse as Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin aren’t racists in the space of the last couple weeks!

And while Mr. Brooks, Mr. Frum and I are an odd trio to lump together, insofar as we disagree on so many things, we’re also united in routinely disagreeing with others on the right about politics without claiming that our interlocutors are “too dumb to understand politics.” Orthodox movement conservatives tell themselves that they’re constantly put upon by elite interlocutors who regard them as stupid, but the fact of the matter is that folks like Mark Levin, Dan Riehl and Sean Hannity are the ones who almost constantly claim that dissidents are “too dumb to understand politics,” going so far as to explicitly call us naive useful idiots. Mercilessly mocking us by marshaling the most insulting ad hominem attacks imaginable are a constant feature of their rhetoric, yet their audiences are convinced that it is they who are put upon by Inside the Beltway elites who regard them as idiots. Even in the instances where they are correct, they’re invariably thinking about the wrong elites.

One last point. I concluded my recent entry by addressing a bunch of disparate points that came up in round one. In response to Mr. Hawkins assertion that the right is in some ways better off than it’s ever been before due to the rise of conservative media, I write, “When it comes to news and opinion media outlets, I’d argue that quality matters, and that the right still lags markedly behind the left when it comes to the quality of the journalism it produces — is there any publication on the right, for example, that even approaches the quality of writing and reporting one finds every week in The New Yorker?”

Here is how Mark Thompson characterizes my remark:

This sequence puts Hawkins on the ropes, and Conor looks poised for the knockout. But just before the bell rings, Conor runs out of steam and throws a few weak punches denigrating the quality of the conservative media as compared to the quality of the explicitly liberal media. This series of punches misses because it’s not clearly tied with the theme of the rest of Conor’s argument and Conor lacked the time at the end of the post to set this line of argument up properly. The truncated resulting argument thus comes off as unconvincing and quite likely as a gratuitous shot at conservatives that Hawkins will no doubt use heavily to his advantage in the final round.
Still, the first 3/4 of Conor’s round were near-flawless and landed some clear hay-makers, where Hawkins’ round was inconsistent despite landing some solid blows. Friedersdorf wins the second round of a tough fight. After two rounds, I have it scored 19-all. However, had Conor left out the last paragraph, Hawkins may well have suffered a knock-down that would have left the round 10-8.

If I understand correctly, Mr. Thompson finds my arguments sufficiently persuasive on the merits that I scored a near knockout, but quite apart from its substance, regards the fact that I dare mention the right’s media deficiency as so unpalatable to conservative ears, regardless of its truth, that we’re basically tied in the debate. This is a suboptimal way of evaluating a battle of ideas, and it suggests that Mr. Thompson may be experiencing the soft bigotry of low expectations when he puts himself inside the mind of our audience. Perhaps if I persist in refusing to even consider the merits of certain arguments due to misguided ideological orthodoxy, I’ll one day find myself in a debate where I get to score points even though I’m wrong because my interlocutor made the mistake of saying something true but unpalatable. As yet, I’ve never benefited from that kind of victory.