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Georgetown Cocktail Parties

In response to a posting from Tunku Varadarajan accusing him of being a “polite company conservative” who “yearns for the goodwill of the liberal elite in the media and in the Beltway—who wishes, always, to have their ear, to be at their dinner parties, to be comforted by a sense that liberal interlocutors believe that they are not like other conservatives, with their intolerance and boorishness, their shrillness and their talk radio,” David Frum can only but laugh.

Ah! Those Beltway dinner parties, those Georgetown cocktail parties, those delicious evenings whispering sweet nothings into the ears of David Broder and Chris Matthews! How delicious, how enticing, how … utterly non-existent.

Tunku here repeats a favorite — maybe the central — myth of modern conservatism, the animating theme of the Sarah Palin campaign, the grand unifying story line of Fox News: fear of the seductive power of the “cultural elites.” One moment, you are a virtuous young conservative who dutifully believes and repeats what he hears on the Glenn Beck program. Then: the dreadful moment of temptation! Adam Nagourney has invited you to a barbeque in his backyard! It’s too dazzling, too irresistible. In a twinkling, the certitudes of a lifetime collapse.

When I read these childish fantasies in the comments section at Free Republic, I shrug. The commenter is repeating things he absorbed from some Allen Drury novel at summer camp 30 years ago. How can he be expected to know better? But Tunku of course does know better. Tunku is inveighing against a world that ceased to exist a generation ago, if it ever existed at all. It’s as if a preacher were to climb to the pulpit to preach against Jazz music and bathtub gin and flappers and flivvers. You’d think, “Has this man spent the past half century in cryogenic suspension?”

Like me, Tunku worked on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. He knows intimately the actual pressures brought to bear on ambitious young conservatives — and the truly glittering temptations laid before them. Answer me this, Tunku. Which frightened you more when you worked there: the fear of offending the membership committee of the Greenwich Lawn Bowling Club? Or the fear of transgressing the complex internal ideological system of the Journal’s editorial page? Which incentivized more: the yearning for an invitation to Felix Rohatyn’s house? Or the hope of an endorsement of one’s most recent book by Rush Limbaugh?

And here in the capital — where the media elite spend their leisure hours worrying over the next round of lay-offs and buy-outs — what are the opportunities that beckon most lucratively? Is Tunku so unworldly that he imagines that the big lobbying firms pay 6-figure salaries to people who DISSENT from their party leadership?

He is of course right.  If one’s goal is to be a successful political commentator, all the incentives are toward shrillness, hyperbole, and conformity.

This is as true in the blogosphere as it is in the paid opinion racket.  There are millions of blogs out there competing for eyeballs and, while there’s a market for sane centrism, it’s a tiny niche compared to that for rabid Progressivism, Bible thumping Conservatism, or doctrinaire Libertarianism.  Moreover, there are decided network effects to being part of a “team.”  Certainly, OTB was getting a lot more linkage back in the days when one’s opinions on the merits of the Iraq War was the only thing that mattered.

That said, Varadarajan has something of a point.  While I’ll never be invited to write speeches for a president or get major financial backing for my personal website, my journey has in some ways been similar to Frum’s.  While I do think the Conservative Movement and the Republican Party have become more doctrinaire in recent years, it’s also true that my own views have evolved on a number of issues.   And I have little doubt that part of the reason for that is my having moved from the Deep South to the Beltway area seven plus years ago and thereby changing my associational perspectives.

I know more gay people.  I know more atheists.  I know more people in the tax brackets President Obama is targeting. I even know lobbyists, Hill staffers, and Republican Party and Movement apparatchiks.  That simply gives me a wider scope of experience than I had when I was teaching in small town Alabama.

Probably more important than where I live, though, is what I do.  Not so much my stints as book editor, defense contractor, and think tanker — although they’ve doubtlessly changed me in subtle ways — but seven plus years blogging.  I read much more widely than I used to.   And, because I’m an academic by training and temperament, I tend to be drawn towards bloggers and other writers who are methodical and empirical rather than those who rant and rave.

Now, even if there were a lot of posh parties in Georgetown, I wouldn’t go to many of them even if I were invited.  It’s just too big a pain in the ass for me to get in and out of there and, frankly, I’d rather spend my evenings with my family.  But I actually do care that people that I know — whether in “real life” or in the virtual medium in which I operate as a blogger –  believe that I’m someone worth engaging with.  That I am in fact different than the shrill, boorish types that get the most attention on talk radio, protest rallies, and blogs.

It’s not so much that I’m trying to be the conservative blogger that liberals like.  That’s a futile task, unless one goes full-out John Cole.   I do, however, try my best to be an honest commentator rather than a hack who merely carries water for some Party or Movement.  Mostly, though, I do that because I’ve learned Rick Nelson’s lesson well.  If talking points were all I wrote, I’d rather drive a truck.

UPDATE:  Via my referral logs, I see that I wrote a very similar post (“Questioning Their Motives“) back in October 2008, itself in response to a post Frum wrote over at NRO, which drew an excellent response from Julian Sanchez (“Slave to the Cocktail Circuit”).  My initial reaction was to be impressed Julian had written such an extensive and thoughtful post so quickly.  Upon noting the time stamp, though, it became one of déjà vu.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    It’s possible that “crazy” has jumped the shark for Republicans, and that they’ll round back to more Buckleyesque discussion. Possible. But not certain.

    The alternative, that they’ll keep purging the non-crazy, because the non-crazy have the capacity for conversation, is a bit scary.

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  2. sam says:

    And I have little doubt that part of the reason for that is my having moved from the Deep South to the Beltway area seven plus years ago and thereby changing my associational perspectives.

    The real divide is not between conservatism and liberalism — it’s between cosmopolitanism and hickism. Ask Tunku. After all, his blast was aimed at Frum from the Daily Beast, for Christ’s sake.

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  3. And I have little doubt that part of the reason for that is my having moved from the Deep South to the Beltway area seven plus years ago and thereby changing my associational perspectives.

    No doubt that has had its effect. Of course, I stayed here and have had a similar experience.

    I think you hit on a lot of it here:

    Probably more important than where I live, though, is what I do. Not so much my stints as book editor, defense contractor, and think tanker — although they’ve doubtlessly changed me in subtle ways — but seven plus years blogging. I read much more widely than I used to. And, because I’m an academic by training and temperament, I tend to be drawn towards bloggers and other writers who are methodical and empirical rather than those who rant and rave.

    Plus, blogging requires one to be public about one’s views (by definition) and if one wants to be intellectually honest (as you and I do), ranting and raving is problematic. There is little doubt that I have become less ideologically inclined on a number of topic because of this fact.

    And, one has to sometimes face up to the facts when one is wrong on something one has written about–especially if one wants to be taken seriously outside of a specific partisan circle.

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  4. TangoMan says:

    The real divide is not between conservatism and liberalism — it’s between cosmopolitanism and hickism.

    I think that Sam is almost speaking to the true dynamic at work and he either doesn’t see the entire dynamic it or he’s misunderstanding what he sees.

    The divide, I would argue, is between cosmopolitanism and national identity. When international cosmopolitan elites can find more common ground amongst themselves than they can with their respective fellow citizens, we’d be in error to describe the non-elite cosmopolitans as “hicks.”

    The TEA Party movement is advancing a clear anti-cosmopolitan agenda – they are grass roots, cosmopolitans believe themselves to be an elite and thus better suited to leading. Frum can’t wrap his noggin around the notion that ordinary citizens wanting to live closer to the fundamental principles of the Constitution can have a more popular message than that of cosmopolitans like himself.

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  5. TangoMan says:

    Charles Murray rips David Frum.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    Murray’s argument, which I read earlier today, is a fair one. Although Frum claims he got the “pressure from donors” info from AEI’s head honcho directly.

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  7. TangoMan says:

    Murray’s argument, which I read earlier today, is a fair one. Although Frum claims he got the “pressure from donors” info from AEI’s head honcho directly.

    So what we’re left with is Murray’s appeal to parsimony and Frum’s appeal to his own credibility.

    Frankly, I don’t see there being a contest between these two positions.

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  8. the notion that ordinary citizens wanting to live closer to the fundamental principles of the Constitution

    The problem, of course, is what that actually means. I know that in my experience teaching American government over the years that most people haven’t read the Constitution, let alone have a working knowledge of its fundamental principles. More likely than not they simply assume that whatever their preferred view of government and politics is also conforms to “the fundamental principles of the Constitution.”

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  9. steve says:

    Steven Taylor- Even more people have never read any of the writings of the people who wrote the Constitution. That opens eyes a bit.

    James- Just keep doing what you do. I suspect you will soon no longer be an accepted voice of the right. Their loss.

    Steve

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  10. TangoMan says:

    The problem, of course, is what that actually means.

    True enough. I suspect that the folks who can’t articulate the principles fall back on a.) difference comparisons, b.) cultural traditions, and c.) national myth.

    In the first case, the see what the cosmopolitans are advocating, note their disagreement and refer to b.) and c.) in order to anchor their disagreement on a foundation.

    In the 2nd case, as the US has espoused a tradition of individualism in preference to communitarianism, and they, with their lay knowledge of the Constitution, don’t read communitarianism into the Constitution, so they conclude that their beliefs are more in tune with the Constitution than those of the cosmopolitan elite.

    In the third case, many people have a gut level understanding of what it means to be American and embracing “commie” notions like subsidizing someone else’s healthcare means that such notions run counter to the principal founding document, for if our founding fathers meant for us to live a commune lifestyle, they would have set those notions down in the Constitution.

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  11. An Interested Party says:

    In the third case, many people have a gut level understanding of what it means to be American and embracing “commie” notions like subsidizing someone else’s healthcare means that such notions run counter to the principal founding document…

    So where are the majority of Americans who feel that Medicare (or even Social Security if we extend the idea of paying someone else’s way) is/are “commie” programs that are un-American and must be dismantled…

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  12. TangoMan says:

    So where are the majority of Americans who feel that Medicare (or even Social Security if we extend the idea of paying someone else’s way) is/are “commie” programs that are un-American and must be dismantled…

    The reason that there is/was so much resistance to means testing to qualify for social security and medicare was that people objected to these programs being turned into welfare. With FICA taxes people are under the impression that they’re participating in a forced savings program for their own retirement.

    Thinking that you’re saving for your own retirement isn’t a commie notion.

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