When literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950 that liberalism was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States, he meant it as a lament. He noted that while some conservative opposition to liberal thought did exist, its proponents remained inarticulate and could “express themselves” only through “irritable mental gestures.” He also wrote of the fear that liberalism would grow flat and flaccid without a worthy intellectual sparring partner to keep it fresh.
Liberals today face an even graver situation, as conservatism threatens to run off the rails of reality entirely, and liberalism is thus once again in danger of having no real intellectual opposition to force internal questioning or truth seeking about what works and what does not in the present political era.
Contemporary American conservatism faces a slew of problems that Trilling would recognize as its adherents seek to reimagine and retool their movement in light of its unmistakable repudiation in the 2012 presidential election. But, as anyone who watched Fox News’s election coverage would likely agree, among the biggest obstacles facing conservatism is its inability to recognize reality for what it is. Nobody looked more shocked by President Barack Obama’s victory that night than Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and the rest of the folks at Fox News—even when the results were just what polls had predicted.
Conservatives hold outlooks ranging from denying the fact that guns are murderous weapons to ignoring the threat posed by man-made global warming to discounting the dangers posed to our democracy from economic inequality. Holding just one of these positions in the face of the avalanche of evidence against them is remarkable. But to hold to all of them is something even more curious and demands an explanation.
The key to it, I believe, is conservatives’ ability to continue insisting on the existence of an alleged liberal media conspiracy to keep the truth not only from them but also from all Americans. After all, if the only places conservatives can get their news bias-free are sources committed to their own cause, there is no need to face up to “reality” as such. It’s an endless loop of victimization and self-justification—an argument stating that what the rest of us view as the “real world” plays next to no role in their calculations, political or otherwise.
In a recent Forbes article titled “Is America’s Future Progressive?“, the author, Joel Kotkin, predicted—rather optimistically from a right-wing perspective—that:
The class issue so cleverly exploited by the president in the election could prove the potential Achilles heel of today’s gentry progressivism [because the] Obama-Bernanke-Geithner economy has done little to reverse the relative decline of the middle and working class, whose their share of national income have fallen to record lows. If you don’t work for venture-backed tech firms, coddled, money-for-nearly-free Wall Street or for the government, your income and standard of living has probably declined since the middle of the last decade.
Kotkin’s final economic claims might be true, but it’s odd to blame progressives for this when it has been those on the right who have stymied all efforts to try to improve the situation. But leave that aside for a moment. Here’s the sentence that makes one’s eyes widen: “And then, the Republicans, ham handed themselves, are virtually voiceless (outside of the Murdoch empire) in the mainstream national media.”
“Virtually voiceless.” Yes, you read that right. According to Kotkin and Forbes, CNN does not now and has never offered viewers the voices of previous conservative commentators such as Erick Erikson, Lanny Davis, David Frum, Dana Loeesh, Ari Fleischer, Susan Molinari, Mary Matalin, Amy Holmes, William Bennett, Margaret Hoover, Rich Galen, David Gergen, Nancy Pfotenhauer, Alex Castellanos, Leslie Sanchez, S.E. Cupp, Kevin Madden, Marsha Blackburn. (Full disclosure: I got that list from Wikipedia. I don’t watch enough CNN to know if they are all actually still working there.)
Perhaps Kotkin doesn’t consider them to be conservatives. Perhaps, then, MSNBC does not broadcast Joe Scarborough for 15 hours a week, who is often joined by former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (to say nothing of Karl Rove acolyte Mark Halperin). And has anyone picked up a copy of The Washington Post lately? Notice that Charles Krathammer, George Will, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, Robert Samuelson, Robert Kagan, Mike Thiessen, and Kathleen Parker all have regularly published columns, along with Chuck Lane, Dana Milbank, and Ruth Marcus often taking up the Republican cause—if only to bash liberals.
What about David Brooks and Ross Douthat at The New York Times (and Brooks regularly appearing on PBS and NPR—those bastions of liberal thought—as well)? What about Jonah Goldberg at The Los Angeles Times? Ever read Newsweek/The Daily Beast? Surely you must have noticed, say, Mark McKinnon, Meghan McCain, Megan McCardle, David Frum, Eli Lake, Niall Ferguson, Michael Medved, and even Howard Kurtz playing ball more often than not. Isn’t that George Will, Peggy Noonan, and Matthew Dowd on ABC News pretty much every week? Is Condoleezza Rice not on CBS News as a contributor? Yes, the Rice appointment came after the article by Kotkin was published, but still, which major mainstream media outlet does not employ conservatives to regularly give voice to Republican points of view?
The notion that Republicans are “virtually voiceless” is evidence of a point of view so divorced from reality, one barely knows what to say in response. In fact, according to many studies, Republican voices continue to dominate the mainstream media discourse, especially on the influential Sunday morning broadcasts.
Of course it’s possible, even likely, that Kotkin and Forbes are not as crazy as all that. Perhaps they have taken to heart Rich Bond, then-chair of the Republican Party who in 1992 outlined the right’s game plan, saying that, “There is some strategy to it [bashing the ‘liberal’ media]. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”
A golden oldie to be sure, but what could be more conservative than sticking with what works? Too bad it requires these same media outlets to divorce themselves from reality merely to accommodate these voices, and thereby give the impression that, as Stephen Colbert likes to say, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
I know I’ve used these quotes before. I fear I’ll have to use them again in the future, too. Don’t blame me. Blame the “virtually voiceless,” and, oh yes, the “refs.”
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.