CPAC Demonstrates The Limits Of The Conservative Brand
The idiot who has contempt for everyone smarter than you act is a bit, well, limiting.
CPAC happened last weekend, and apparently there’s been some grousing that it gets so much more media attention than similar progressive events, such as Netroots Nation. Or, at least that’s a question that Josh Marshall got from a reader, and so he decided to answer it and his answer is quite interesting. Basically, CPAC has a lot of structural advantages, being in D.C., so they’re already going to get more reporters than events where you have to fly your reporters. But there’s also more than that, which is that CPAC is basically designed to generate high-traffic news stories in a way that other conferences are not:
In recent years, especially since Obama became President, CPAC’s wild press popularity and attention has been driven by what we might call a tacit conspiracy of derp between the event organizers and the people who cover it. You be outrageous; we’ll be outraged. And everyone will be happy. (After all, crap like this doesn’t happen by accident.) This has become even more the case as the contemporary Conservative Movement has become less a matter of ideology than a sort of performance art.
Liberals should definitely be proud that their leaders don’t routinely generate the “look what nutty things that bag of stupid is saying today!” type of coverage. Being the political side that is primarily seen as mature, intelligent, and non-hateful has its advantages, especially in the realm of avoiding self-loathing. Sure, there are a lot of conservative outlets that try to drum up similar outrage on the right about things liberals are saying, such as Twitchy, but it almost never works to get mainstream coverage. That’s because most of what they find “outrageous” statements by liberals fall into a handful of basic categories: 1) Impatience with conservative bad faith 2) Being funny 3) A ready acceptance that sexism and racism exist and 4) A perceived excess of human kindness. None of which really sounds “outrageous” to anyone who thinks humor, good faith, kindness or lack of self-delusion are loathsome qualities to have.
The reason conservatives put on a performance of assholery/deliberate stupidity is that it has worked for a long time. Even the mockery from people who can’t believe what ripe assholes they are has been effective in rallying the troops—the idea that they are “pissing off the liberals” is exciting and perhaps even a little sexually arousing to that subset of conservative men whose mental image of a “liberal” is the kind of sexy young lady that pointedly ignores his leering in public—and so they keep at it. (Indeed, the recent addition of routine shaming of women for using their own insurance plans to cover contraception feeds right into what said conservative men want to hear—fuck those sluts who won’t sleep with you!) But I can’t help but think that the fact that the conservative brand is that of a bunch of intellectually dishonest assholes is going to result in diminishing returns. The sense that being on the right gives you “permission” to be a bully and a liar is definitely a power rush, but over time, people are starting to crave more from politics. Economic hardship, in particular, makes it harder all the time to indulge that desire to be an asshole over economic self-interest.
Indeed, Obama won in a landslide twice over by asking people to vote their hopes instead of their resentments, and the conservative response has really shown how limited the asshole brand really is. They don’t have any weapon against hope except more contempt and resentment. “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for you?” might give one that initial surge of pleasure that comes with being as ass, but the cost is that it’s basically an admission of nihilism, an open promotion of the idea that it’s better to burn the country to the ground than share it with people not in your specific tribe. The problem with making “asshole” your brand is that it really limits your toolkit, and you don’t adjust well to the changing tides.
Which isn’t to say that Republicans are done for this election or next. But the very us vs. them mentality that is the engine that drives the conservative movement is also becoming its biggest obstacle for long-term relevance. It’ll be interesting to see if things like CPAC will ever figure out how to evolve, or if they will just become more and more of a clown show.