The “Conservative Cocoon” Vs. The “Conservative Elite”

by John Hawkins | October 21, 2008 9:56 am

Ross Douthat[1] wrote a piece a few days ago that has been much talked about and even though other people on RWN have commented on it, I just had to get my two cents in on the article.

What Is The Conservative Cocoon?

…The cocoon is the constellation of mutually-reinforcing conservative institutions – think tanks and advocacy groups, talk-radio shows and websites – that can create the same echo-chamber effect that the liberal media has long produced, and that at times makes it difficult for the Right to grapple with reality. The cocoon is the place where it took an awfully, awfully long time for conservatives to admit that the post-2004 crisis in Iraq wasn’t just a matter of an MSM that wouldn’t report the good news. The cocoon is the place where conservatives persuaded themselves, in defiance of most of the evidence, that the reason the GOP lost Congress in 2006 was excessive spending, and especially excessive pork. And today, the cocoon is the place where conservatives are busy convincing themselves that Sarah Palin’s difficulties handling high-profile media appearances aren’t terribly important, that her instincts are more important than her grasp of national policy, and that the best way to defeat Barack Obama is to start with the lines that Palin has used on the stump – Ayers, anti-Americanism and ACORN – and take them to eleven.

…So when I say that a populist conservatism needs elites, what I really mean is that it needs elites who can step outside this cocoon and see national politics more clearly – whether they work for conservative outlets, MSM outlets, or something else entirely. This is not, I repeat not, a matter of listening to Beltway conventional wisdom instead of the practical wisdom of the heartland. It’s a matter of recognizing political realities, instead of denying them outright – whether you’re in DC, New Hampshire, or Wasilla.

…Again, these voices are doing her no favors. If you don’t think Sarah Palin should listen to people like David Brooks, fine – there are other conservative thinkers whose views differ from Brooks’s particular strain of right-of-centrism, but who share his interest in policy and (more importantly) his understanding of the straits the GOP is in.

First of all, we’ve heard a lot of talk about “conservative elites” over the last few weeks, especially in light of criticism that has been aimed at Sarah Palin. Much of the criticism we’ve heard from big name pundits on the Right, although not all of it, has seemed to have more than a whiff of snobbery about it — hence the “elitism” charges.

That being said, I don’t know that having a big debate about “elitism” is very productive, given that it’s basically impossible to identify who the “conservative elites” are. The word “elite”, like the word “neocon,” tends to have a different meaning to almost every person who uses it.

For example, the most powerful and influential voice on the Right is Rush Limbaugh. Is he a “conservative elite?” If not, why not? Because he didn’t go to college? Because he doesn’t live in the NY-DC corridor? Because most conservatives actually agree with him on the issues?

On the other hand, Douthat identifies David Brooks as being elite. Well, what makes him a “conservative elite?” He could fairly be called right-of-center, but he’s not a conservative in any meaningful sense, nor is he influential in the conservative movement, a particularly sharp thinker, or a great political analyst. So, does merely being a right-of-center moderate writing for the New York Times make you an elite? Personally, I don’t think so.

So, where I think the debate in the party needs to really break down is between what Douthat calls the “conservative cocoon” and what I’d call the “compassionate conservatives” AKA the “big government Republicans” AKA the “squishes” and “RINOS.”

It’s all well and good to talk about conservative “echo chambers” and stepping “outside this cocoon (to) see national politics more clearly,” but the Bush Presidency, in particular the last four years, remind me of something Margaret Thatcher once wrote[2],

“During my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come, in one fashion or other, from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it.”

During the Bush Presidency, particularly in the last four years, most of the problems have come from outside of the “conservative cocoon” and the solutions, few of which were ever implemented, came from inside of it.

It’s not that the problems Bush and the Republican Party had couldn’t be anticipated. They were. It’s not that they couldn’t have been avoided. They could have. It’s that the Republicans in Washington thought they saw “national politics more clearly” than the rubes in the “conservative cocoon,” and they turned out to be wrong.

Let me give you a perfect example from Douthat’s piece: “The cocoon is the place where conservatives persuaded themselves, in defiance of most of the evidence, that the reason the GOP lost Congress in 2006 was excessive spending, and especially excessive pork.”

This is conventional wisdom amongst Republicans in D.C. and it’s too clever by half. The reason it’s clever at all is that, yes, politicians are rarely punished by their constituents for bringing home too much pork. So, the conclusion that has been drawn by many of the Republicans outside of the “conservative cocoon” is that spending money like drunken sailors is A-OK.

However, what they miss is that what may work on a micro level, falls down on the macro level. Yes, a Republican politician can benefit from bringing home the bacon, but because the Republican Party is supposed to be the party of small government and less spending, when they are viewed as failing on that count, it depresses their base across the board. If a “rising tide lifts all boats,” then similarly when the tide goes out, it leaves those same boats sitting in the mud. That’s what is happening all across the country: Democrats are going into Republican states and Republican districts and beating Republicans. Why? In large part, it’s because controlling spending and the size of government is a core part of the Republican Party’s appeal and when you take that away, the Democratic candidates are more attractive.

It’s also worth taking the time to revisit some of the other areas where the “conservative cocoon” and the — let’s call them the “inside the Beltway crowd” — have differed over the last few years.

Time after time, we’ve seen these Beltway Republicans push ideas that the base didn’t like and the public was lukewarm on because they swore it would be good for the Republican Party. Sometimes they were blocked. Sometimes they succeeded and it paid no benefits. Not once can I think of a time where the people in the “conservative cocoon” were wrong and the Beltway Republicans were right. For example…

No Child Left Behind: The Democrats who supported it initially turned on it soon after. Even John McCain rips it from the stump these days.

The Medicare Prescription Drug Plan: This Johnsonesque budget buster passed over conservative opposition and the Republican Party gained what from it? As far as I can tell, absolutely nothing.

The Gang-of-14: We gave up slamming through a lot more Republicans judges and in return we got….nothing. If Obama gets in, the Democrats will be able to push through anyone they like.

The Dubai Ports Deal: Bush tried to shove this through Congress despite enormous opposition from the base and the public. He lost and it was a huge blow to his presidency — over $%$%$# Dubai? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Harriet Miers: Once again, the Bush administration went toe-to-toe with his own supporters on an issue they cared desperately about. He lost and thankfully, we got Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court as a result. Is anybody sorry at this point that we got Alito instead of Miers? Anybody? So, why didn’t he nominate Alito in the first place?

Illegal Immigration: Nothing has done more to sap the morale of conservatives and kill fundraising than this issue, which Republicans tried to push through Congress despite getting phone calls 100 to 1 against it.

The Bailout: If John McCain loses, his support for the bailout will be the primary reason. Again, phone calls were running 100 to 1 against it. They pushed it through. Guess what? It didn’t work and it crippled McCain. The “conservative cocoon” was right again.

What it all comes down to is that the “conservative cocoon” has been right over and over again while the smart guys in D.C., who are supposed to know so much more than all the right-wingers in flyover country, have screwed up so badly that they may end up handing a wildly unpopular Democratic Party an unassailable margin in D.C. If that’s supposed to be what our wise “conservative elite” can do for us, then they can take their advice, turn it sideways, and shove it straight up their narrow behinds.

  1. Ross Douthat:
  2. Margaret Thatcher once wrote:

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