The Conservative Media Can't Lose
They don't know how, and it threatens to put the country at risk.
Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
On the morning of October 14, after two weeks of the GOP's government shutdown had cratered the party's standing in the polls and with the debt ceiling looming, Fox News contributor Erick Erickson sent his daily email to subscribers. "Keep Fighting" was the message from the conservative media mogul, whose strategies are frequently adopted by his party's right wing.
Erickson's daily briefing urged readers to press Senate leaders not to accept a deal that didn't defund or delay Obamacare. He also demanded House leaders pass a debt limit increase while holding firm on refusing to pass a bill to fund the government unless it is tied to defunding health care reform. And crucially, he wrote that he had just donated to two conservative PACs "at the forefront of the fight" and to primary opponents of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and urged his readers to do the same.
The conservative wing of the party has been dictating its strategy since at least mid-August, when vocal minorities in both houses implored congressional leadership not to defund the health care law as the price for passing short-term government funding legislation. To outside observers, it seems clear that the strategy has been an abysmal failure. And yet, prominent right-wing media figures not only want to double down on that strategy, but punish members of the party who seem the least bit hesitant to pursue it.
How to explain these wildly disparate assessments? A large faction of the right-wing media -- Erickson, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity Breitbart News, and a host of others -- has become trapped in the political embodiment of a variant of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.
Under that logical fallacy, adherents shift definitions and appeal to purity when confronted with evidence that disproves their beliefs rather than accepting reality. In this case, the right-wing media has become convinced that a central pillar of modern conservatism is that it cannot lose. Any evidence suggesting that a conservative strategy has failed is thus rejected on the grounds that either the strategy didn't really lose, or its implementers weren't true conservatives and thus betrayed the plan by failing to promote it with quite enough fervor. That mindset has locked the right-wing media and through it many activists and lawmakers into a seemingly endless pattern of crisis politics with potentially devastating consequences for the country.
We've seen this same cycle play out over the past few election cycles. Conservatism "did not lose last night" said Limbaugh the day after President Obama defied a years-long assault by the conservative media to win re-election.
The conservative media's explanation for the 2012 defeat was that Mitt Romney wasn't a real conservative and hadn't run a campaign that sufficiently energized the conservative base. It's the same explanation they gave for John McCain's loss in 2008. It didn't matter that Romney and McCain had each moved to the right to win primary votes in ways that would end up costing them in the general election -- a true conservative would have been victorious.
Meanwhile, the party's post-mortem on the 2012 election warned that the " Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue." That may be good advice for a national party that needs to win a majority of voters. But the right-wing noise machine that feeds on the attention of the base has much influence and money to make in that "ideological reinforcement to like-minded people," and thus immediately rejected that advice.
Instead, they've doubled down on the type of rhetoric that failed in the last election and targeted the GOP stalwarts who point out that the party is mired in a demographic death spiral. They could not be true conservatives, because they have acknowledged that a strategy has failed for reasons other than insufficient conservatism.
This same rationale is the heart of the strategy that much of the conservative media has been promoting for the past few months. Yes, Obama was re-elected even though his health care law was a major issue during the campaign. But the GOP's failure to win that election only means that true conservatives need to push back against Obamacare with even more fervor. Tie it to funding the government, tie it to raising the debt ceiling, repeal, defund, delay, defeat the law by any means necessary and the votes will come. Only by failing to be true conservatives can the GOP truly lose.
House and Senate Republicans may respond to the last few weeks' devastating poll numbers by turning their backs on the right-wing strategy that brought both their party and their country to the precipice of disaster. But as Erickson's commentary shows, no one should expect the right-wing media to be chastened, or to admit that the strategy that they promoted was at fault. After all, ratings and pageviews are up, donations to right-wing groups are through the roof, and people like Erickson have reinforced their roles as major party players. .
Instead, we'll hear cries that if only their party's congressional leaders had been true conservatives, they would have won. We'll see the willingness to accept government shutdowns and even debt defaults become a major issue in GOP primaries and leadership fights.
It's a vicious cycle that will likely move the country closer and closer to disaster each time it is played out. Because the conservative media does not know how to admit defeat, it does not know how to accept defeats for the hope of future victories. And if it doesn't learn how to lose, sooner or later we all will.