I notice James Joyner and, via him, David Frum complaining about a certain attack that gets leveled against conservatives who are insufficiently infatuated with Sarah Palin or John McCain these days: That they’re effectively selling out their principles to win the approval of elite Beltway media types, who will henceforth invite them to posh cocktail parties and Sunday morning political talk shows. I find this interesting in part because I got a bit of the same back when Dave Weigel and I wrote about the whole Ron Paul newsletter fooferaw. It’s also the implicit charge when folks on the right allude to the “strange new respect” afforded some quisling fellow traveler.
Here’s the really odd thing about this. The number of “David Brooks” slots out there—opportunities for a token moderate conservative or libertarian at an otherwise liberal-leaning mainstream publication—are vanishingly tiny. I’m actually hard pressed to think of an obvious example other than Brooks and maybe Ross Douthat, but at any rate, I’m pretty sure they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. If you’re in the very small pool of realistic contenders for that slot, I guess it might be a rational career strategy. If you’re not, it might still be good for a one-shot “even the conservative…” op-ed or TV spot. But on the whole, it’s not gonna do you that much good. You’re still going to be the freak.
If you’re willing to toe a straight party line, on the other hand, let’s face it, you can be pretty damn mediocre and still carve out a nice little niche for yourself at any one of a welter of generously funded ideological publications and think tanks. Sure, it’s a smaller pond, but you get to be a relatively big fish. You’ll always have a book deal waiting at Regnery, a warm guest chair on Fox, editors at NR and the Weekly Standard eager to look at your pitches, handsome honoraria on your speaking tour of College Republican groups, and in your golden years, an undemanding sinecure as the Senior Olin Fellow at the Institute for Real ‘Murriken Studies. (Ask yourself whether, absent these venues, you would ever have heard the name “Michelle Malkin.” And cross apply all of the above, mutatis mutandis, on the left, of course.)
For all but the very, very few with a realistic shot at a Brooks slot, the cynical careerist calculus weighs strongly in favor of reflexive fealty. And certainly it’s got to be much easier, much more comfortable, to give your self-selecting audience precisely what they want to hear and bask in their accolades. I don’t know if I’ve named it here before, but I’ve long observed a phenomenon in the blogosphere I call “audience capture,” where a once-interesting writer becomes rather dull and predictable, each post another jab at the lever, predictably rewarded with a tasty pellet.
Moreover, all this strikes me as fairly obvious, certainly to anyone working in ideological punditry. So much so that you start to wonder whether these attacks don’t have a whiff of projection, or at least preemption, about them.