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Frum, Cocktail Parties, and the Threat of Doubt

March 26th, 2010 · 245 Comments

Amid the buzz over David Frum’s recent ouster from the American Enterprise Institute, some folks have linked back to this old post on the now-hoary trope that heterodox conservatives are simply angling for invitations to the fabled Georgetown Cocktail Parties. There’s a certain irony here in that Frum himself is no stranger to attacking the motives of deviationist conservatives. Just a few years back he was suggesting that paleoconservative opponents of the war in Iraq had progressed from”hating their party and their president” to “hating their country.” And I’m not sure this quite counts as a pattern, but it’s interesting to me to note that Andrew Sullivan, similarly derided as an apostate for his increasingly harsh criticism of the current state of the conservative movement, was back then in very much the same business, denouncing those he regarded as insufficiently fervent about the war on terror as a “fifth column”. I doubt this is accidental. Both men, I’m inclined to suspect, may in part be directing their fiercest critiques at some echo of their own past selves. (Aren’t we always most irritated by the people who remind us of our own least favorite traits?)

In the original post I suggested that the cocktail party attack itself might be a form of projection on the part of folks who are, at some level, acutely aware that their own careers depend on hewing pretty close to a party line. But I think there’s something else going on here too. One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter.  If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.

To prevent breach, the internal dissident needs to be resituated in the enemy camp. The Cocktail Party move serves this function particularly well because it simultaneously plays on the specific kind of cultural ressentiment that so much conservative rhetoric now seems designed to stoke. Because it’s usually not just a tedious charge of simple venality—of literally “selling out” to fetch better-paying speaking gigs or book deals.  You can clearly make a damn good living as a staunch conservative, after all, and Bruce Bartlett doesn’t exactly talk as though he’s gotten a big income boost out of his apostasy. No, the insinuation is always that they’re angling for respectability, because even “one of us” might be tempted by the cultural power of the enemy elites, might ultimately value their approval more than that of the conservative base. It’s a much deeper sort of purported betrayal, because it’s a choice that would implicitly validate the status claims of the despised elite. You’re supposed to feel as though you’ve been snubbed socially—discarded for “better” company—which evokes both more indignant rejection of the quisling and  further resentment of the liberal snobs who are visiting this indignity on you.  In a way it’s quite elegant, and you can see why it’s become as popular as it has.  But it’s fundamentally a symptom of insecurity—and a self-defeating one, because it corrodes the kind of serious discussion and reexamination of conservative principles and policies that might help produce a more self-assured movement.

Addendum: My friend Andrew Grossman writes to object:

Interesting, but you are much too dismissive of those who constitute “the contemporary conservative movement.” Do you really believe that Washington’s movementarian conservatives cloister themselves in conservative castles? Perhaps that’s true in the hinterlands—though I have seen it only rarely during my stint in Texas—but it is not in Washington. If nothing else, pretty much everyone goes to the same bars and trivia nights or, for the older set, charity fundraisers and (yes, generally) cocktail parties. I like the idea of “epistemic closure” for its explanatory power, but it is not an accusation I’d throw around lightly.
Andrew is absolutely right about conservative elites, and it’s part of what makes this line of attack so silly. The New York– and D.C.-based conservatives who staff the movement’s think tanks, magazines, and advocacy shops don’t in fact inhabit a different universe from their liberal counterparts.  They all read the New York Times and drink lattes and go to parties together. There’s some clustering, to be sure, but nobody acts like they really believe the folks on the other side are insidious hellspawn. The pose is for the benefit of the base, who—not because they’re conservative, but because they aren’t urban media professionals—are likely to draw on a narrower range of trusted news and opinion sources.

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