One of the causes of the current insistence among conservatives on ideological purity is the closely-related conservative echo chamber that some elements of the Right have created for themselves.
Jay Nordlinger recently published a piece in National Review Digital entitled “Looking for Lefty,” in which he bemoans that frustrating task of finding someone liberal who’s worth reading. Some conservatives might wonder why he bothers. Nordlinger explains that we all need a little fiber in our media diets. His annoyance comes from the fact that liberals never seem to have met actual conservatives — and exhibit no interest in learning anything that might alter their snarky, dismissive caricatures of conservatives with actual substantive truth. Other conservative readers, having experienced the same thing, are ready to throw their hands up in the air and just call it quits.
Still, it is important to be exposed to the other side’s arguments. (Less important, Nordlinger acknowledges, for conservatives to seek them out than liberals, since leftism is the very cultural air we breathe.) If we aren’t familiar with them as they are, how can we expect to respond to them?
I’ve always been curious enough to read many perspectives on things, but Nordlinger’s column has inspired a sort of political New Year’s resolution: to be more systematic and insistent in keeping up on what the other side is saying.
But the real reason I bring up the piece is this particularly telling passage:
Don’t think that conservatives who concentrate on the right-leaning press have lives of peace and quiet. Oh, no. You can spend 90 percent of your time stewing about the failings of other conservatives. Your own side can exasperate you more than the other side. Conservatives are very good at infighting and splintering. There are always people who present themselves as the One True Conservative, next to whom everyone else is a heretic.
Nordlinger’s come across a very real danger that arises when you isolate yourself among the opinions on your side of the aisle: the differences among the Right appear much more substantial when they are not juxtaposed with opinions on the Left. Too, when one has blocked out the opinions of liberals with whom one disagrees, how much further of a step is it to block out the conservatives with whom one disagrees?
Quite a few newly active Americans have joined the conservative, libertarian and Tea Party folds in the past four years. Too many are impatient and naïve enough to believe that the enemy is those who are in some disagreement about the solution or the way and speed at which we can get there. Conservative bloggers — who have exploded in number in the past decade and are only slightly more knowledgeable and experienced — feed the myths by creating safe websites where such opinions are unchallenged.
This potential right-wing echo chamber is a great danger for conservatism and reminds me of something Jonah Goldberg said last year:
For starters, the [conservative] movement has an unhealthy share of hucksters eager to make money from stirring rage, paranoia and an ill-defined sense of betrayal with little concern for the real political success that can only come with persuading the unconverted.
A conservative journalist or activist can now make a decent living while never once bothering to persuade a liberal. Worse, it’s possible to be a conservative without once being exposed to a good liberal argument. Liberals lived in such an ideological cocoon for decades, which is one reason conservatives won so many arguments early on. Having the right emulate that echo chamber helps no one.
But a conservative blogger’s inability to deal with a liberal argument because of a lack of exposure to it is no longer a problem when he doesn’t care persuade anyone. The “us vs. them” mentality metastasizing in some sectors of conservatism causes its members to dismiss anyone with a single issue of disagreement with them as a heretic — see Ann Coulter’s treatment of Marco Rubio over immigration — rather than a recognition of the fact that a pluralistic, representative republic with democratic elements requires persuasion and compromise to achieve political reform.
To this end, it is important to know and understand those who are on our side. In this way, we might have sufficient numbers to halt and reverse the titanic lurch toward statism that is occurring. Not so, if we insist on complete ideological purity.
If we have no intention of persuading, at a minimum we should at least know whom we’re dealing with. If nothing else, a consistent reading of the Left’s absurdities should at least foster in us an appreciation for how comparatively small our disagreements are with our allies on the Right.
So while you’re enjoying a healthy low-fat salad this January, find a liberal piece or two, hold your nose, and try to make it through.