Inside the Cocoon

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Is the conservative noise machine good for conservatives? Ross Douthat suggests that while it might be good politically, it hasn’t been very effective at getting conservative policies enacted:

The presidency of George W. Bush, the first Republican to govern in the age of Fox News, represented a political high-water mark for modern conservatism: For the first time since, well, ever, a right-wing Republican Party controlled the House, the Senate and the presidency all at once. But nobody on the right regards the Bush era as a golden age of conservative policymaking.

….In the age Before Fox News, on the other hand (B.F.N., to historians), the American Right managed to lower taxes, slow government’s growth to a crawl, whip inflation, and deregulate important swathes of the American economy, among other Reagan-era accomplishments. The Berlin Wall came down, and then the Soviet Union fell, even though conservatives were forced to follow both stories in the mainstream media, rather than hearing about them from Sean Hannity.

There are some caveats to this, which Douthat notes, but he suggests that the noise machine, overall, has made conservatism flabbier by making it unnecessary for them to really engage with the outside world:

Given the trajectory of conservatism across the last thirty years, I think the burden of proof here is on the partisans of Fox News and talk radio: It may be that conservative politics have benefited dramatically from the rise of a right-wing media-industrial complex, but there’s plenty of evidence pointing the other way….Conservatives had a real intellectual advantage in the days when they had to engage with the mainstream media….In the age of Fox News they’re giving this advantage up.

As it happens, I think this goes a little too far. Conservatism was largely successful in the 80s because it was primed for a backlash against the previous two decades of liberalism. But then conservatives won: taxes went down, the Soviet Union fell, the economy surged, and social liberalism, if not defeated, was at least slowed down. Frankly, by the time George Bush was elected in 2000, they didn’t have all that much left on their plate. Liberals, conversely, by 2008 had a backlog of several decades’ worth of ideas they wanted implemented, so it’s hardly surprising that they came out of the gate pretty strongly after Obama was elected.

Still, there’s a worthwhile point here. The Fox cocoon may be good for stirring up the troops, but it’s almost certainly not good for the intellectual development of new ideas. And eventually that catches up to you. If modern conservatism is simultaneously politically vigorous but intellectually enervated, Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh probably deserve both the credit and the blame.

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