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Nyhan And All That “Heterodoxy” On The Right

Since I have been writing on the theme of conformity, dissidence and blogging, perhaps a few belated words about The American Prospect‘s termination of Brendan Nyhan’s blogging at their site are in order.  Most observers of the situation have deplored the reason for what some have called Nyhan’s “defenestration” (people apparently don’t just get fired anymore!), namely that Nyhan, who considers himself a non-partisan analyst, refused to stop dishing out some criticism to the liberal side.  One of the offending posts in question, attacking both the tiresome habit of neocons in comparing everything in foreign policy to the Nazis/fascism and the liberal habit of comparing their domestic enemies to Nazis/fascism, was as refreshing as it is rare.  But in all honesty, who was Nyhan kidding?  The large conservative magazines no longer have to enforce ideological conformity with purges such as this because they long ago established the ground rules for what would pass for acceptable dissent, and the limits of permissible discourse are exceedingly narrow, everyone knows where the limits are and nobody, if he wants to long remain associated with those magazines, crosses them.  The Prospect is drawing its boundaries in accordance with what the blog left declares to be acceptable and unacceptable.  I despise these sorts of purges, but they happen all the time–and no one has less credibility in denouncing them than the people who have mastered the fine art of writing entire groups of people out of the conservative movement. 

As for liberal complaints about the uppity Kossacks dictating terms to the Prospect, some perspective.  After fifteen years or so of whining about a lack of progressive alternative media, liberals have finally gotten their equivalent of talk radio in the netroots and have found that it comes at the price of unleashing the unseemly passions of the core supporters and giving them a real voice that can influence and intimidate others.  The GOP was smart about how it has handled the talk radio phenomenon–it approves of it enough to make the radio hosts feel as if they are part of the GOP team, and eventually they become, as Limbaugh did, hacks who will say almost anything on behalf of the party (who knows? perhaps he has even come to believe the preposterous things he says!).  The GOP has come to understand the value of talk radio as the vent that releases built-up pressure among their political base, especially on intense issues such as immigration; its magazines have nothing to fear from the blog right, because the major GOP bloggers are all more or less marching along in agreement with the major magazines and think tanks.  The problem of how to handle intimidation from RedState or lgf never comes up, because these blogs simply don’t make any attempt to enforce conformity on the magazines–instead, they enforce the magazines’ conformity on their members and commenters. 

The NROniks can talk about their penchant for heterodoxy all they like (no, really, they have said this!), but in fairness I have never seen the NROniks go after the looney fringes of Republican blogging (think Little Green Footballs) or the fever swamps of talk radio (think Michael Savage).  Instead of belittling the unseemly Bush-worship of PowerLine’s Hinderaker, some denizens of The Corner seem more interested in competing with him for Chief Lackey.  The issue in the Nyhan case has never been whether the Prospect would criticise Democrats, but whether a non-partisan analyst would be forced to toe an ideological line dictated by blog activists.  NRO and the like do not face this problem, because they and the righty bloggers are all more or less toeing the same line to begin with.  All of this is deplorable, but as has been noted before one of the very purposes of the “movement” has been to enforce conformity, not encourage debate and dissent.  Liberals can look at the conservative operation as something of a success story, in terms of election results, provided they ignore the deleterious effect this “success” has had on the quality of ideas and thought in the “movement.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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