Cocktail Party Fallacy

Is the only possible motivation conservatives could possibly have for calling out the lunatic fringe a desire for the acceptance of liberals?

Reacting to Bill Kristol’s criticism of Glenn Becks’ crazy rant about imaginary caliphates, Stacy McCain observes “I share Krauthammer’s forebodings of an Egyptian revolution and dislike Kristol’s effort to enhance his own Strange New Respect quotient by dissing Beck.”

First, I’d note that there are rational fears about radical Islam and irrational ones. Is it conceivable that a post-Mubarak government is more Islamist than his? Absolutely. Egypt is a relatively secular state, at least in the big cities. But a natural consequence of suppressing opposition political parties is that radical groups like the Muslim Brotherhood wind up as the strongest opposition institutions. But, while Osama bin Laden may dream of restoring the caliphate, there’s simply zero chance of it happening.

Second, and more importantly, I’ve long since tired of the notion that the only possible motivation that conservatives could possibly have for calling out the lunatic fringe within their movement is a desire to be loved by liberals and get invited to their cocktail parties.

Going back at least to William F. Buckley, Jr.’s famous article casting the John Birch Society out of the legitimate conservative moment, it has been understood that letting the fringe define the cause hurts it. Buckley correctly reasoned that Birch founder Robert Welch’s crazy and outrageous conspiracy theories were tainting the legitimate anti-Communist movement.

Similarly, the psychotic rantings of Glenn Beck invite ridicule on the rest of us. Legitimate points are inevitably countered by comparisons with absurd variants by Beck, Coulter, Limbaugh, and others who make a living stoking the fears of the base. This is, at best, a distraction from the debate and, often, makes intelligent discussion of the issues next to impossible because they’ve been preemptively framed by the loudest, most shrill, most hyperbolic voices.

UPDATE: Stacy responds:

If we had listened to that argument in 2009, there never would have been a Tea Party movement. Republicans would have rolled over and played dead and gone along with the whole Obama/Pelosi/Reid agenda because it was not respectable to oppose Keynesian “stimulus” spending, cap-and-trade, nationalized health care, and so forth.

This is the Nutty or Weak corollary to the Cocktail Party Fallacy. Nobody’s arguing that the alternative to Beck-style lyin’ and cryin’ is to adopt the Democratic agenda. Rather, the alternative is to present a passionate, reasonable, and honest defense of conservative principles. I just prefer Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin, George Will to Ann Coulter, and Bill Buckley to Glenn Beck.

Now that “the loudest, most shrill, most hyperbolic voices” have succeeded in fomenting grassroots opposition, however, we are told that elected representatives must ignore the people who elected them and, instead, must heed those respectable voices who did nothing at all to help encourage the Tea Party movement.

One can be respectable and stand for fiscal responsibility and smaller government. Indeed, if one’s goal is to persuade those who don’t already agree, you’re much more likely to do it that way than with screaming loons. While it’s true that the Tea Party movement ignited the base, it’s pretty easy to argue that the Republicans would have the Senate right now if we’d nominated reasonable candidates instead of the likes of Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, and Ken Buck.

Hey, let’s dump Ann Coulter because, after all, “the Age of Ann has passed,” right? She’s only the author of, what, five or six New York Times bestsellers?

I’m not sure what the ability to sell books to people who agree with you proves.

Yeah, let’s get rid of Coulter because a bunch of bloggers said so.

Who’s making an argument from authority? We’re arguing that Coulter’s brand of vitriol hurts the cause she claims to espouse.

Purge Coulter! Purge Beck! Purge Sarah Palin! Purge Mark Levin! Purge Rush Limbaugh!

Purge! Purge! Purge!

And keep right on purging until the only people inside the Big Tent are respectable Republicans like Mike Castle, Lincoln Chafee, Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist, and the motto of the Official Conservative Movement becomes, “Me, Too.”

Again, this is nonsensical. Coulter has gotten increasingly shrill over the years.  Beck and Levin are scary crazy. And Limbaugh has seemingly gone from the lovable little fuzzball of yore to a rather angry fellow. But they’re commentators, not politicians. I’d frankly rather have Mike Castle in the Senate right now than Chris Coons.  Ditto Lincoln Chafee vs. Sheldon Whitehouse.   I’m happy to have traded in Specter for Pat Toomey and Crist for Marco Rubio, although I never had much trouble with Crist. (Specter, on the other hand, was generally annoying.)

But, again, the choice isn’t between solid conservative candidates who are ranting lunatics and respectable liberal Republicans. There are plenty of unrespectable crazies across the ideological spectrum.  I’d just prefer not to elect any of them.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    This post is a bit unfair to Beck. Whether you agree with him or not, he is not at all psychotic. His “rantings” as you call them, are well researched and logically presented to his audience. His delivery is dramatic, perhaps a bit kooky sometimes, but nobody has yet been able to effectively argue with the content of his message.

    You come across as a liberal in this post, attacking the man instead of his message, which is itself a distraction from the debate, the very thing you complain of in your post.

  2. tom p says:

    Patrick is channeling the Onion today. Satire could be no less pure.

  3. anjin-san says:

    > nobody has yet been able to effectively argue with the content of his message.

    Beck’s “content”… The Weathermen are responsible for recent gains in Turkey by the AKP? Why would a rational person waste 10 seconds of their life “arguing the content”? It is sort of like debating about the presence of men from Mars in our government.

  4. His “rantings” as you call them, are well researched and logically presented to his audience.

    I suppose the accuracy of that statement depends very heavily on one’s definition of “well researched” and “logically presented.”

  5. Matt says:

    Patrick wrote:

    “You come across as a liberal in this post, attacking the man instead of his message, which is itself a distraction from the debate, the very thing you complain of in your post.”

    The moment that anyone reduces an entire group to one that “attacks the man instead of his message” any possibility of rational debate is closed. This is a tactic that ideologues like Beck, Limbaugh, and yes, individuals on the left (Grayson) do regularly so that they don’t have to deal with the argument.

    In the case of Mr Beck, OtBW, and other blogs have well documented his ongoing descent into side-show lunacy. And note, if you go back far enough, you will find posted from James *defending* the far less end-of-days Beck. As far as addressing the message, why not start with Steven’s excellent recent essay on the “weatherman” analysis of Egypt. (

    Simply put, Beck is the best example of a modern day John Birch’er. What differentiates this moment in 1962 when Buckley moved against Welch seems two fold. First, there’s no clear catalyst for what Beck (or others of his ilk could do) that would present a clear enough break (remember that key event was Welch’s open claim that Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” and that the government of the United States was “under operational control of the Communist party.”). I can’t currently imagine any of them making that big a mistake (quite frankly they all seem far too “controlled” for that sort of mistake).

    The second problem, at the moment, is that there is far more money to be made (on all sides) by keeping the neo-Birchers in in the fold. Each is an important component of what Am Con folks often call “conservative inc.” (and of course, there’s also a “liberal inc.” too — just different). When Buckley and other made the move against Welch, they felt there was more at stake than just economics. But, at the same time, the economics of fallout of the move was far less extreme than if present intellectuals on the Right went after the extreme talkers crowd. Additionally, the right wing mediascape was, in many respects, far more open than it is today. So the price of dissention, if it had failed, was also far lower (see for example what happened to Jim Manzi a few years ago).

  6. Douglas says:

    I don’t like the cocktail party conflict either, but many of those who get banded with the cocktail party betray the “If you agree with me 80% of the time” thing. If we agree 80% of the time, why do you spend so much time dwelling on the 20%? It isn’t just those espousing moderate positions who do this, it’s also some of the cultural conservatives, the hard core libertarians and pretty much every person who ignores the 80% and focuses like a laser on the 20.

    That’s the problem. Address the 20% but don’t make that 20% 80% of your commentary. Point out the 80% in which you disagree with your political opponents, and stop eating your own. (Yes stacy is guilty of this too.)

  7. Jay Tea says:

    I just prefer Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin, George Will to Ann Coulter, and Bill Buckley to Glenn Beck.

    James, you realize you just put yourself in the same camp as a lot of liberals, who talk about how “the best conservatives are the dead ones.” (Well, 2/3 into the camp.)

    It’s a seductive trap. But keep in mind how Buckley and Reagan were treated when they were still alive by those now talking about how much they miss them. There are a LOT of liberals who absolutely hated and loathed and despised Reagan and Buckley when they could speak for themselves.

    Coulter… I think she’s a fantastic bomb-thrower. I like her because she pisses off the right people. I once thought it would be brilliant if she was nominated for the Supreme Court. No, not confirmed, for god’s sake, but just seeing her in a hearing with Ted Kennedy et al would have been amazing. Put it on pay-per-view, and we could have retired the federal debt.


  8. steve says:

    James- Do you really have the power to purge people out of the GOP? Let us know, because if you do, I have some suggestions.


  9. ponce says:

    Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have shown that idiotic rantings can be a path to wealth in the Republican Party.

    Don’t underestimate the number of Beck and Palin wannabees who are trying to strike it rich with the same shtick.

    Most of them are bloggers.

  10. Douglas says:

    As opposed to the Markos’s, the Schultz’s, the Olbermanns, the Maddows, the Malloys, the Frankens, the Hamshers on the left?

    that is what I mean, stop fighting over the 20% as though it’s a life and death thing, fight the opponent when it really matters.

  11. superdestroyer says:

    The moderate Republicans had their chance during the Bush Administration. What conservatives got out of the experience is a police state at airports, $5 trillion added to the national debt. An expansion of entitlements, an expansion of federal regulations, and a failed economy.

    People got made at the moderates because the moderates were massive failures. Until the so-called conservatives ever propose shrinking the government, limiting the government, and cutting spending, the the so-called moderates will have zero credbility. For all of the problems with Rush, at least he and others on the right talk about the topics that conservatives want to talk about. Moderates just want to replace middle class white conservatives will immigrants (See Jeb Bush).

  12. Derrick says:

    “I like her because she pisses off the right people.”

    Welcome to the mind of the modern day right-winger. The Right is just infected with people who think in this non-serious, juvenile and somewhat crazy manner. And it completely explains why Sarah and others mentioned are so popular. It’s not because they are a good representative of conservatism or that they are providing insightful perspective, but that liberals don’t like them. I’m so glad that the adults are running the conservative movement.

  13. Laurie says:

    I don’t see how a “journalist” with his own show on a major cable network can be considered part of the fringe. The lunatic label I understand.

  14. epistorese says:

    You don’t get it, James. For the Coulters, Limbaughs, Palins, and those who listen to them, there ARE NO “solid conservative candidates who aren’t ranting lunatics.” Anyone you might name as a solid conservative candidate will be dismissed as a closet liberal. Read Stacy’s argument (or lack thereof) again and tell me that she is not just against whatever you might say.

  15. Jay Tea says:

    Derrick, I’d be horrified if Coulter ever had any kind of position of power. But as a pundit, as someone who is an undisputed master of eviscerating liberals, she’s priceless.

    Come on. Wouldn’t you love to see Coulter taking on, say, Keith Olbermann or Ed Schultz? It would be glorious.


  16. Mark Allen says:

    Mr. Joyner, I suggest you find a party waiter and grab yourself a drink to sip on and save your musings for the msm!

  17. michael reynolds says:

    Still not sure whether Patrick is serious or doing satire. I asked once before. Does anyone know? Because he’s just too perfectly off to be for real. It feels like satire. Maybe the return of our old friend Triumph?

  18. jean power says:

    Without the “lunatic fringe ” and the bigots you guys would never win an election and you know it,thats why you have to bow to the clowncar crazies like Beck and the “teabaggers”.Too bad you played them so hard to the right that Nixon and Reagan would be considered commies to them.


  19. beejeez says:

    Wait a minute, JJ. You’re saying that entree to liberal cocktail parties shouldn’t be the reason conservatives call out their lunatic fringe, so you’re invoking … William F. Buckley?

  20. milprof says:

    It has been amusing to watch Egypt exposure the fissure between the crazy millenial-xenophobic base and their heros like Beck, and the GOP elite — not even elite in the sense of Chaffee but elite in the sense of Bill Kristol or Karl Rove! How far they’ve gone in just 3 years!

    Seriously, you have to have a clinical level of paranoia and narcissim to watch a mass uprising in Egypt and immediately ask, “Is ACORN behind this?”

    At least we’ve removed the veil a bit and many in that millenial-xenophobic base are now openly admitting that they believe that Muslims can not be trusted with democracy, and are openly criticizing George Bush for having thought otherwise.

  21. Jay Tea says:

    jean, could you please repeat that last comment? I couldn’t understand it. It was too muffled by that scrotum in your mouth.


  22. bains says:

    While it’s true that the Tea Party movement ignited the base, it’s pretty easy to argue that the Republicans would have the Senate right now if we’d nominated reasonable candidates instead of the likes of Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, and Ken Buck.

    But to what effect?

    Personally, I am OK that Sharron Angle lost to the Senate majority leader, and that Reid still is majority leader. It denies the press and President the ability to blame the GOP for their own failures. Furthermore, you are thinking tactically not strategically if you pine for Senator Mike Castle. Believing that the R behind any elected representative’s name furthers the conservative agenda is willful ignorance. Specter, Crist, Graham, and yes, even McCain prove the point. Certainly, there are states where moderate Republicans are the best option (Scott Brown, Olympia Snowe), but if you are so willing to accept anyone sporting the R, irrespective of ideology, and more importantly, voting records, you are ignoring the larger purpose of party. It is a failing of many Republican ITB folks.

    But what many find galling, James, is the willingness of so many ITB Republicans to so readily throw under the bus like-minded folks whose rhetoric Democrats and their propaganda bureau – the MSM – deem offensive. This is what I was talking about in another thread. It is a double standard wherein you must denounce the caustic rhetoric issued from your side while ignoring that which regularly flows from so many left of center.

    It does not matter to me whether you and Doug hate Sarah Palin, or Rush Limbaugh, or whoever. What sets me off is not that you blithely ignore the left’s more hateful, and incendiary rhetoric; no, it is that you have seemingly acquiesced to playing a game in which the rules – by design – prevent your side from winning. And that you implore your teammates follow those rules.

    Until the left starts apologizing for Alan Grayson, Charles Blow, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Barbara Boxer, Ed Schultz, Maxine Waters, Ray Nagin, Randi Rhodes, Howard Dean, George Soros, Ted Kennedy, Keith Olbermann, Jim Moran, Frank Rich… I’ll be damned if I excoriate my side just to fit in to “polite” society.

  23. wr says:

    Hey Bains — Could you refresh my memory? I can’t seem to remember any of the times any of the elected officials in your list above called for armed revolution should their part lose at the polls.

    Come up with those quotes, or admit that you’re lying about the left.

    (Oh, and “some poster on DU said something mean” doesn’t count. Elected officials or nominees for high office like Angle.)

  24. G. says:

    “nobody has yet been able to effectively argue with the content of [Glenn Beck’s] message.

    Okay. How about: calling for the deaths of one’s fellow Americans is wrong? Specifically, I’m referring to when Glenn Beck said he wanted to beat U.S. Congressman and Korean War veteran Charlie Rangel to death with a shovel.

    Or when Beck acted out, on air, his fantasy of poisoning Nancy Pelosi to death.!5331987/glenn-beck-jokes-about-poisoning-nancy-pelosi

    Or when Beck said he’d like to assassinate Michael Moore.

    There. Three calls for three Americans, two of whom are U.S. Congresspeople, one of whom is a veteran who served his country and won a Bronze Star. I’d say that’s worth arguing with. (lest you think Beck’s rantings don’t have a negative impact, I’d point you in the google-able directions of Richard Poplawski, who murdered three Pittsburgh cops after uploading a Beck video onto a website he was a member of, and Byron Williams, who was en route with a carload of guns to assassinate people at Beck’s frequent target the Tides Foundation, before he was stopped by police. He got into a shootout with them. It’s a miracle he didn’t kill anyone.)

    As for Coulter, well, she’s been someone who conservatives should be ashamed to associate with since August of 2002, when she openly expressed the wish that Tim McVeigh had gone to the New York Times building instead of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building. Again, very easy to find on google.

    As a note of contrast, you don’t find the mild-mannered Rachel Maddow acting out the poisoning of John Boehner, and you don’t find Al Franken calling for the deaths of those he disagrees with from the floor of the U.S. Senate (unlike, say, Republican Jesse Helms, who directly threatened Bill Clinton’s life in 1993.)

    When your movement’s spokespeople are calling for the deaths our fellow Americans, your movement has serious, serious problems; that’s as good a reason as any to go William F. Buckley on Beck and Coulter.

  25. reid says:

    The MSM is the Democrat’s propaganda bureau? And here I was hoping that you weren’t just another wingnut. Ah well.

  26. milprof says:


    You do realize you are making exactly James’ point, right?

    In this case, I don’t think Bill Kristol is calling out Beck because Kristol wants the NYT to like him, Kristol is calling out Beck because Kristol actually believes that what Beck is saying is wrong and a terrible guide to US policy. What Kristol is saying now is 100% consistent with his “promote radical democratic change in the MidEast” stance during the Bush Administration — a stance that liberals criticized back then. Given that Kristol has also been saying that what’s going on in Egypt validates Bush’s invasion of Iraq, it’s not exactly like the cocktail party invites will be flowing in.

    What you seem suggest is that Kristol should stifle something he appears to sincerely and passionately believe, and instead give Beck a pass no matter what he says until the Democratic Party and the Upper East Side both officially apologize for Ed Schultz. And liberals are the cynics.

  27. Jay Tea says:

    G., Rangel’s Bronze Star does NOT balance out him being one of the most corrupt members of Congress serving today. Hell, I’d argue it makes it worse.

    But back to the original topic… Buckley? “Crypto-fascist.” Reagan? “Amiable dunce.” George Will? Hung the term “congenital liar” on Hillary Clinton.