Chait and Sykes on how the right lost its mind

Last week Jonathan Chait interviewed Charlie Sykes about his new book How the Right Lost its Mind, prompted by Chait’s review of Sykes’ book.  Their discussion is well worth a read.

In case you’re not familiar with him: Sykes is a former talk radio host from Wisconsin.  Conservative, but also staunchly opposed to Drumpf, he hasn’t shied away from criticizing his fellow Republicans.  Back in 2015, he called Drumpf a cartoon version of left-wing media stereotypes of the reactionary, nativist, misogynist right, and more recently, he condemned conservatives for selling out their supposed principles and embracing a politics of petty spite.

Sykes certainly deserves approbation for being introspective, especially considering how lacking introspection is among Republicans as a group.  Liberals need not agree with him politically (I certainly don’t) but they shouldn’t dismiss him out of hand.  Unlike most of the right’s prominent voices, Sykes is no troll.

Still, there are a few things he seems blind to.  For one, he seems to think that the bias of the “liberal media” is at least partially responsible for our current predicament.

One staple of every radio talk show was, of course, the bias of the mainstream media. This was, indeed, a target-rich environment.

Here’s the thing.  Conservative complaints about “liberal bias” conservatives over the last two and a half decades weren’t really about bias.  They didn’t say “oh, the mainstream media thinks reporting about such and such fits the liberal worldview, but here’s why their wrong.”  They said “the mainstream media’s reporting is entirely suspect because it’s the mainstream media reporting it.”  In other words, they were engaging in classic ad hominem, attacking the messenger to dispute the message.

Which is to say that complaints about “liberal bias” have always meant more or less what “fake news” has been bastardized by the right to mean now.  As used by pundits at Fox and the leading lights of talk radio, it was not used to critique mainstream media stories.  It was used to declare they were all false, and could be dismissed out of hand.

Chait takes Sykes to task on this point in his book review.

He holds up as evidence of bias truth-ratings from the fact-checking site Politifact, noting incredulously that Republicans were deemed to have spoken untruths at a higher rate than Democrats, even before Drumpf came along. Sykes can imagine no explanation for this other than bias.

But what about the possibility that Republicans say more untrue things because they have a friendly media ecosystem that allows them to do so? In their daily lives, Democratic politicians may not have more honest character than their Republican counterparts. But Democrats know that if they utter blatant falsehoods, the New York Times, NPR, CNN, and so on are likely to call them out on it, and their own supporters (who draw from those outlets for news) will think less of them. Republicans have no such constraint.

Quite so.  Let me also say it’s especially dangerous to declare that everything is just a partisan talking point, and there is therefore no such thing as an objective fact.  You might decide to stop with declaring anything that doesn’t paint conservatives in a positive light as hopelessly wrong, but you give up any recourse to correct people who start promulgating conspiracy theories about Kenyan birth certificates or pedophile-run pizza parlors.

Another point Sykes makes is not so much wrong as it is incomplete.  He remarks that distinguishing between conservative theorists, politicians, and voters is important.

Starting with Hayek, and extending to Milton Friedman, I think there was a principled critique of the limits of government knowledge and, hence, of the ability of the central state to run the economy. There was also an attempt to fuse together various branches of conservatism into the concept of ordered liberty. These thinkers (and I would include people like Jack Kemp later) genuinely thought that limited government, free markets, and economic freedom would provide the greatest scope and opportunities for Americans…

This brings us to the politicians. Richard Nixon, who embraced the most aggressive versions of the Southern Strategy, was not a conservative of this school, but I do think that there was a temptation among the political class to use both cultural and racial issues to substitute for other issues. Conservatives too often gave in to that temptation. Even those who did not turned a blind eye to the grievances among folks whose vote they needed.

Fast-forward to 2016. Drumpf deftly exploited those grievances, and continues to do so. Rather than talk about health care, he attacks the NFL. It’s very much the old pattern. But: This doesn’t mean that people whose views were shaped by Hayek, von Mises, or Friedman are therefore responsible for the alt-right.

It is entirely possible to embrace full-on libertarianism and not be a white nationalist.  But Sykes is deluding himself if he thinks there’s absolutely no connection between the two whatsoever.  The long and sordid history of Ron Paul’s style of fringe politics is ample demonstration here.  Moreover, several figures whose views really were shaped by people like Hayek and von Mises are indeed responsible for the alt-right.

Sykes does allude to the problem, when he admits that full-on economic libertarianism is politically unpopular.  But he never considers that the glue keeping the coalition together was that most people were interpreting economic libertarianism through the lens of racial grievance rather than political philosophy.  Avik Roy, another disaffected conservative, summarized the problem well enough last summer.

Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble… We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism — philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.

This doesn’t seem to be an electoral problem for the Republican Party.  But it does present a problem for conservatives who want the GOP to actually embody principles of limited government, economic freedom, and respect for the rule of law.  If such conservatives really want to know how the right lost its mind, why so many purported libertarians have aligned themselves with Drumpf and the alt-right needs to be addressed, not handwaved away.

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