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 déjÃ vu.