Remember how American conservatives used to respond to media bias in the mid-nineties? I do. They would research the fishy story and then point out its inconsistencies by citing facts and logic. Flash forward to today. When confronted with an unpleasant news story, today’s conservative is just as likely to retort, “mainstream media lies!” This is intellectual laziness and it is troubling. And no, I don’t trust the mainstream media either. I have been studying mainstream media bias since the late 1980’s and have been actively seeking alternate sources of information ever since.
But here’s the thing: even though media bias is real, it doesn’t license you to dismiss every unwelcome fact out of hand. If you do that, you end up in a positive feedback loop of anger and paranoia. Another way of saying this is that if you can dismiss every unwelcome idea that comes your way, you can prove anything. Which is another way of saying you can prove nothing.
No intellectually healthy political movement countenances this kind of dishonest thinking. Until very recently, conservatism did not. Something similar happened to liberalism in the 1960’s, which began the decade optimistic and progressive. But as the decade wore on, an increasingly angry and paranoid outlook took over. Martin Luther King was replaced by Malcolm X. Patriotic New Dealers were supplanted by Bill Ayers and the Weathermen. Liberalism ended bitter and violent because it had lost control of its intellectual self.
The same thing almost happened to the conservatism in the 1990’s. Along with the sunny Rush Limbaugh and the optimistic Republican freshmen who were elected in the 1994 midterms, a nasty, paranoid, extremist element metastasized alongside it. This took the form of the militia movement, whose members carried AK-47’s and spouted wild anti-government conspiracy theories. But the kooks didn’t hijack conservatism - not this time. Partly this was because conservative leaders took their responsibility seriously and policed the movement.
Take for instance a very illuminating exchange between Rush Limbaugh and a listener I happened to overhear in the mid-90’s. A female caller was alarmed at the prospect that the UN was going to bar code new-born babies in American hospitals if NAFTA passed, so that they could be processed better in FEMA camps. Rush had none of it. Though she refused to listen to sense, the intro to his show for the next week began with the phrase, “EIB, the pro-NAFTA network.” Every time I heard that, I smiled. Of course, what really killed off the militia movement was the Oklahoma City bombing. After that atrocity, nobody wanted to be associated with those guys. They were politically radioactive. This helped Bill Clinton win reelection in 1996 but also inoculated the GOP against further fanaticism.
When the Tea Party movement sprung up in 2009, the crazy element was absent. I put this down to Mark Levin’s best-seller, Liberty and Tyranny. If there ever was a right book at the right time, this was it. While ordinary people can often sense when something is wrong, they are often poor at drawing conclusions. They are not political philosophers and so look to leaders for guidance. Thanks to Mark Levin, the Tea Party movement was animated by the principles of constitutional conservatism.
Unfortunately, conservatism lost its way since then. For this I largely blame Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. The wise thing for the then-de facto leaders of the Republican Party to have done was to embrace the Tea Party cause as their own and use it as a vehicle for legislative victory. Instead, they openly scorned the Tea Party voters who elected them while simultaneously misleading them on issues such as immigration. This created a power vacuum that has since been exploited by unscrupulous demagogues.
What’s worse, this time, the conservative media went along for the ride. There is a revealing anecdote about Rush Limbaugh that bookends the story from the mid-1990’s. When Donald Trump recently proposed a trillion-dollar stimulus bill, Rush gushed his approval. In economic terms, Trump’s proposal is equivalent to Obama’s trillion-dollar stimulus package which Rush had (justifiably) derided. As a conservative leader, Rush should have stood up for limited government principles, but he didn’t.
Even worse has been the behaviour of Fox News, whose recent election coverage has been terrible. First, they went all-in for Jeb Bush. When Bush dropped out, they went all-in for Marco Rubio. After he dropped out, they went all-in for Trump. It appears as if Fox learned all the wrong lessons about mainstream media bias. The problem with MSM bias is the bias. What most people want from a news channel is honest reporting. What they don’t want is more propaganda, only this time from the other side. Fox has become what we all say we hate about the mainstream media, except that they do it in the other direction - but with much less skill than ABC News, who is able to hide their bias far more subtly.
If conservatism is to become a forward-thinking force in American politics again, it must jettison all of the bad intellectual habits it has accumulated. It must recover its intellectual honesty and subject its own arguments and beliefs to the same critical evaluation it applies to left-wing ideas. Conservative thought leaders also need to relearn that standing up for principles is more important than partisan cheerleading and emoting. If they do not, conservatism will keep descending into the fringe ghetto where it is currently heading, and the only conservatives left will be a small number of True Believers.