There is this idea among movement conservatives—especially the rank-and-file—that Washington DC journalism is populated by a lot of disingenuous, careerist sell outs. These elites write to enrich themselves, to inflate their sense of self-importance, and to garner social capital, invariably measured by invitations to the dread “Georgetown cocktail party.” Thus they are unconcerned with truth, intellectual honesty, or the actual interests of anyone outside the New York to DC corridor.
This narrative is largely true! Anyone who pays close attention to DC journalism can easily spot intellectually dishonest hacks writing stuff they don’t actually believe, whether to advance their careers or to further a political agenda by the most cynical means imaginable. A blogger could write five posts a day fisking political journalism that is either astonishingly ignorant or disingenuous – and a Washington DC journalist doesn’t have to attend very many happy hours to hear people basically admit that they are hacks who don’t actually believe significant parts of their oeuvres. What vexes me, having observed this game over the last couple years, is that the people accused of being inside-the-beltway sellouts are often the folks who write exactly what they believe; whereas the kinds of publications that rank-and-file conservatives revere for “never selling out” actually do so all the time.
Conor has some examples, and that old post suggests some of the reasons this might be so. The guy at that cocktail party laughingly acknowledging that his last column is a load of crap designed to placate or pander to either the base or allies on the Hill is a lot more likely to be the guy movement types admire as a principled purist than the one they deride as a sellout XINO. And in a way, this is sort of predictable. Over a large number of issues, a thoughtful person applying shared principles to a particular debate or fact pattern is all but guaranteed to sometimes interpret those principles in a different way from the consensus, and so come out at odds with the orthodox movement/party position. Just as being perfectly average in every way is actually quite remarkable, agreeing with the party-line view every single time as the upshot of serious, honest, independent consideration is actually pretty wildly improbable in the aggregate, even if you assume the same underlying value set. Reasonable people not only can differ, as the saying goes; they do, constantly. But if readers assume—maybe this is a sort of ideological strict constructionism—that different people applying the same broad principles will converge on the same, obviously and uniquely correct, political or policy conclusion, then the only way to seem perfectly principled is to be a perfect hack.
I think the paradox arises, not because readers are blinkered, but because normal people don’t actually have the time, energy, and information to formulate their own position on each of the myriad issues out there after serious, honest, independent consideration. I mean, God knows I don’t: There’s a handful of issues I know well, and a bunch more where I trust people who seem both smart and simpatico. In an area where you’re outsourcing, it’s especially easy to conclude that the general consensus view is therefore the uniquely, obviously principled one. More so when the outsourcers in the base adopt the consensus view held at the outset by, say, 60 or 70 percent of the pundits, and suddenly it’s the overwhelming majority view of the “movement” as a whole. Perversely, people then forget that the consensus itself was originally substantially elite-driven, and dismiss the dissenters as out-of-touch elites. Psychologists call this an information cascade, and while cascades have their uses, they’re probably especially unhealthy for a movement whose current trajectory is toward increasing marginalization.