After reading Ross’ final post on the Limbaugh debate, I was reminded of Reihan’s distinction between “true believers” and “evangelizers.” There is an idea that I have seen floating around in this debate that Limbaugh and his fellow radio hosts are somehow representative of “the grassroots” and are caught up in a fight with “elites,” but this is wrong. It may be that the “grassroots” like certain kinds of elites–the kinds that pander to them and flatter them–but that does not make those elites part of the “grassroots.” Reihan’s distinction is useful in that it identifies the debate as one over which direction conservatives should focus their efforts. The debate is fundamentally one between different sets of movement elites who are either oriented inwards or outwards. The former keep asserting that “this is a center-right country” and insist that nothing has happened that redoubled, intensified loyalty to principles cannot cure. The latter are much less unified in their assessment of what went wrong and what needs fixing, but they are in agreement that repeating cliches and slogans that were created thirty years ago (or more) fixes nothing and will persuade no one not already convinced.
What is so frustrating and ruinous about the pro-Limbaugh side of this debate is that it automatically cedes all serious work on policy to those who are already inclined towards a moderate and meliorist agenda, because the mainstream pro-Limbaugh side assumes, or is willing to tolerate the idea, that no work really needs to be done. Reflecting this lack of imagination, the entire post-election strategy has been that the GOP was shellacked twice because it lacked spending discipline, which is simply an unfounded myth that conservatives and party members keep telling themselves to explain the repudiation of the party over Iraq and the economy. Like the near-unanimous backing of the “surge” on the right in 2007, there has been no willingness among the “true believers” to understand the messages the public (or reality) actually did send, and so there continues to be no understanding of what is in need of correction. Inexplicably, when it comes to Iraq the idea that the “surge” was successful remains the prevailing and popular one on the right, when the truth is very different. There seems to have been no fundamental re-examination of anything related to national security and foreign policy, and this is a blind spot that afflicts reform conservatives and their more conventional counterparts. However, this lack of re-examination on foreign policy is mirrored in conservative economics, where the goal seems to be to stand pat on tax, trade and monetary policy.
On a related note, it might be worth thinking about why language normally reserved for the sociology of religion is being applied to describe what is overwhelmingly a narrowly political movement. Reihan is hardly the first or only one to do this, but it is worth calling to our attention when you have Limbaugh stating, “Conservativism is what it is and it is forever.” As Rod asked at the time: “Do they really believe politics is dogmatic religion?” In fact, they probably don’t, but in Limbaugh’s case he is speaking about a political persuasion in a quasi-religious idiom that ideologues over the centuries have used. The “cause” becomes something like a substitute religion, in this case complete with its own half-baked doctrines derived from Whig myths and Enlightenment-era fantasies that is then dubbed a “philosophy,” when it is true enough that it does not deserve the name. Like any ideologue, Limbaugh latches on to a few readily-digestible, repeatable slogans or words and deploys them as and when needed. As Kirk and many others have attested, principles are not ideology, but in the substitution of ideology for principles, which is what Limbaugh does, he and others like him are doing far more damage to any sort of sane conservative politics in this country than the occasional pundit or wonk who argues for particular policy proposals. So Limbaugh alone is not the problem, but he is a significant part of the current problem.