Closing of the conservative mind: the Sarah Palin test

If Republicans lose sight of Palin's unelectability, we'll know they're really far gone

Published April 9, 2010 1:10PM (EDT)

I've been reading Julian Sanchez's interesting posts on "epistemic closure," or the idea that conservatives have, or are trying to create, a media environment in which they only talk to each other and are totally cut off from the larger flow of information.  Of conservatives, Sanchez says:

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...Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. 

To me, the most interesting aspect of this is the extent to which it permeates not to the rank-and-file, but to the leaders themselves.   Sanchez doesn't think so for some of those leaders:

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.

I tend to think that's correct, but I'm not as sure as I used to be, at least not for one group of conservative leaders -- politicians and the people they get information from.  Steve Benen is confident that Mitch McConnell and Saxby Chambliss weren't faking it when they couldn't manage to talk about health care reform beyond their talking points in a recent interview.  Former White House staffer Keith Hennessey was almost comically wrong about the chances of health care reform passing (and see also this Megan McArdle post).  But of course it's possible that McConnell and Chambliss understood the issue well be simply refused to discuss some aspects of it, and it's possible that Hennessey (and McArdle, or at least the conservatives she spoke to) were just playing for the rubes.

Sarah Palin's presidential ambitions, it seems to me, will be the test case.  Presidential nominations are, for the most part, top-down contests; voters matter mainly when party leaders cannot agree on a candidate, or as a means for party leaders to test whether candidates they like for other reasons have broad appeal (see my article here -- gated -- or Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller's book).  In other words, if party leaders don't want Palin to be nominated, her chances are slim at best.  My assumption is that most Republican leaders should be capable of seeing that Palin would be a poor general election candidate and a potentially disastrous president for them if she was elected.  If they can't see that, and support her despite all the warning signs, it seems to me that it will constitute fairly strong evidence that Republican pols and the people they listen to have entered the closed information loop that Sanchez discusses.

See also Matt Yglesias on the causes of the situation.  I think he's partially right; I also think that Steve Benen is partially right when he asserts that Republicans just don't care very much about policy (some certainly do, but I don't think he's totally off).  And see also Ta-Nehisi Coates on the related subject of the relative importance of, uh, lunatics on the two party coalitions.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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2012 Elections Republican Party Sarah Palin