Jon Henke recently called for a boycott of WorldNetDaily on account of its encouragement of Birther nonsense. This has prompted a predictably furious reaction from the WND audience and some more interesting responses concerning the relationship of conservative elites and their grassroots supporters. Here at TAC, Dan McCarthy has argued that it is the Republican welfarism of ‘moderates’ and ‘reformists’ that requires and inevitably leads to the stoking of extreme emotions and the fostering of wild ‘fringe’ movements to compensate for the bloodlessness and lack of appeal of their own agenda. Dan writes:
They would all complain that the grassroots aren’t on board with their “moderate” military welfarism — the grassroots are too brusque, too bumptious, too worked up about Obama’s birth certificate and illegal immigration. But the grassroots Right is in the state it’s in thanks in no small part to the likes of Ponnuru, Frum, Douthat, and Brooks. Since their program of welfare for families doesn’t inspire anyone, their political allies wind up having to whip up enthusiasm for the military side of the program, and have to throw in some red meat about gays, immigrants, and abortion. But the NY-DC axis have no cause to complain, since that’s the only way to sell the public on their insipid welfare-warfare program. He who wills the end must will the means. The only means toward getting the Right to embrace the welfare state is to get the Right hopped up about real wars or culture wars. But that’s precisely what has cost the Right political power over the last four years.
In short, the moderates created the extremists.
There is something to Dan’s claim, inasmuch as the ‘moderates’ and ‘reformists’ desperately need their more ‘conservative’ counterparts to appear to be in league with maniacs and fanatics in order to play their role as the ‘reasonable’ members of the right with whom respectable liberals can do business. Even when this is not the case, they try to give people the impression that it is. They also need to find something with which they can motivate the grassroots, and so they turn to those issues where they can maximize grassroots anger at cultural change and the political status quo (both of which make the grassroots feel as if they are relatively powerless) without embracing any substantive agenda that would satisfy grassroots concerns. When some part of the grassroots becomes preoccupied with plainly ridiculous distractions, such as Birtherism, this makes things much easier for the ‘moderates’ and frees them to set themselves up as the only credible alternative on the right. To the extent that non-conspiratorial conservatives tolerate their wackier counterparts, these conservatives are playing into the hands of the people whose policy agenda they loathe.
In turn, the frequently substance-free, occasionally conspiratorial nature of some grassroots activism, which is epitomized by the Clinton obsessions of the ‘90s or Birtherism today, helps to reinforce the idea that the elites and ‘moderates’ are holding dangerous political forces within their own movement at bay. Having marginalized, stifled and ignored the grassroots for decades, conservative elites use the angry expressions of grassroots discontent, which is a function of grassroots impotence, to quarantine them even more and keep them away from real centers of influence. My guess is that conservative elites were extremely happy with the Tea Party and town hall protests, but not primarily because they represented conservative resistance to Obama’s agenda or because they helped to delay or even stall health care legislation. What would have satisfied them was the almost entirely negative quality of these protests, which leaves the door open to them to provide their policy solutions for lack of any proposals from the rest of the right.
Because the elites and especially the ‘moderates’ would be nowhere politically without being able to exploit culture war sentiments and nationalist enthusiasm for real warfare, the ‘moderates’ need to keep rank-and-file conservatives in a state of constant agitation. This directs grassroots fury away from the ‘moderates’ and towards the left, where it dissipates harmlessly because it is usually incoherent and presents no serious alternative policy proposals. This helps keep grassroots conservatives so preoccupied and so obsessed with feeling outrage rather than thinking or crafting policy that it leaves the field of a lot of actual policymaking open to the ‘moderates’.
Because it is the loudest and most widespread expression of popular conservatism, usually channeled through talk radio, the furious grassroots becomes the public face of conservatism even as the grassroots have next to no influence on policymaking regardless of which party is in power. Thus conservatives win a reputation for being unduly fixated on, say, immigration, while actual elected conservatives either take up much softer positions on the issue or actively work in support of continued mass immigration, or conservatives are portrayed as obsessed with social issues when social issues have next to nothing with the agenda of their elected representatives. As a result, the issues where the grassroots are ignored with the greatest regularity somehow come to be identified as the defining features of their party. ‘Reformists’ are more than happy to encourage this identification, because without a negative public image for conservatism there would scarcely be anything for them to change and improve. The more the public loathes the grassroots, the thinking seems to be, the more it will welcome the arrival of people who will reorient the party away from the things the grassroots care about.
The grassroots are permitted to feel as if they are the beating heart of the GOP during campaign season while they are carefully excluded from real power, which simply deepens their discontent and ironically makes them even more willing to leap at the chance to support any phony populist who comes along and says the right things to them. This process builds on itself as the grassroots conservatives mistake their feelings of agitation for populism, the elites encourage the idea that populism is nothing but aimless discontent and phony populist politicians prey on the emotions of the agitated crowd to propel themselves into office, where they quickly surround themselves with conservative elites who either loathe or merely laugh at the people who put their boss into office. The elites have increasing contempt for the grassroots as the latter demonstrate time and again that they can be easily duped into endorsing candidates who do not represent them or their interests, and the grassroots respond to elite contempt, which the elites no longer even attempt to hide, by denouncing anyone who does not pander to their feelings of agitation and stroke their collective ego as an ‘elitist’.