In the Huffington Post yesterday, Jon Huntsman gave his thoughts on the current state of the Republican Party:
His sharpest words were directed not to the future of the GOP but at the not-so-distant past. Huntsman described the Republican primary process as corrosive, producing pledge-signing, cookie-cutter candidates more interested in money and publicity than policy. Recalling one particular debate, Huntsman described the sensation he felt observing his fellow White House aspirants.
“Some do it professionally. Some were entertainers,” he said of the Republican presidential field. “I looked down the debate stage, and half of them were probably on Fox contracts at one point in their career. You do that. You write some books. You go out and you sell some more. You get a radio gig or a TV gig out of it or something. And it’s like, you say to yourself, the barriers of entry to this game are pretty damn low.”
Of course, there’s a certain amount of sour grapes in this diagnosis. Still, it’s a valuable observation. You can’t discuss GOP dysfunction without first looking at the ways in which conservative media shape the environment within the Republican Party. And in looking at conservative media, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there are major market incentives for the kind of buffoonery, invective, and apocalypticism that you see on display.
Whether through books, TV, radio, or the Web, conservative provocateurs have made a killing during the Obama years. People like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Dinesh D’Souza have made millions laying on suspicions about Obama’s life and history. Beck’s popularity among conservatives skyrocketed as he ran with conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth (he might not be American), or his true intentions for the country (he’s out to turn the United States into a socialist dystopia). Rush Limbaugh has convinced millions of his listeners that Obama is out for racial retribution, and D’Souza is the director of a successful documentary arguing that the president is the latest in a line of anti-colonialist crusaders.
There’s no question that this has seeped into the Republican Party—see the constant calls to fully “vet” Obama or enthusiasm for candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who offered a toned-down version of the same narratives.
It’s not hard to see why conservatives have continued to buy and consume these stories. They’re exciting: They present a world where conservatives are a besieged minority, fighting to restore America to its former glory. It’s not hard to see why conservative media continues to produce them—they’re extremely lucrative.
The problem is that this is no way to build a successful opposition. The energy you generate might be enough to block the president from following through on his agenda, but it won’t help you regain office. Worse, it might hinder attempts at clarity; if rank-and-file conservatives were shocked by Obama’s re-election, it was because they had been told—for more than a year—that the economy had tanked, that the president was flailing, and that the American public had turned decisively against him. Sure, none of this is true, but if you’re Glenn Beck, your concern is making money, not providing an accurate picture of the electorate.
This may not prevent the Republican Party from regaining the White House—in fact, I’m sure that it won’t—but it will produce another primary process that is more circus than discussion. When Republicans do win control of the policymaking apparatus, they will be hindered—as George W. Bush was—by a media that has little interest in honest criticism, and a huge incentive to make things up for the sake of earning cash.