Is the conservative media killing conservatives?

When Republicans perform a full autopsy on the 2012 elections, they'll realize they only deluded themselves

By Paul Waldman
Published November 10, 2012 3:00PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect Liberals like me have spent a lot of time in recent years mocking conservatives for the silliness of their media, wherein Steve Doocy is a star, Sean Hannity is an insightful analyst, and Rush Limbaugh is a brave crusader for truth. Beyond the jokes, we've talked a lot about the pathologies produced by the self-reinforcing worldviews propagated in the conservative media ether. One of the key features of those media, and what differentiates them from partisan left media, is the way they talk about the rest of the media. Liberals may like to watch MSNBC, but if you watch MSNBC you won't be reminded ten times an hour that everything you see in your newspaper or on another television station is a vicious lie concocted by conservatives to deceive you as part of their plan to destroy the country you love.

But that is what you'll get if you watch Fox, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or consume many other kinds of conservative media. It's not just a diet of information congenial to your beliefs; it's also a message of distrust of any other source of information that isn't explicitly conservative. Which is why it's not in the least bit surprising that many conservatives were so shocked by the results of Tuesday's election; if you're soaking in that rhetoric, the idea that a majority of American voters could voluntarily choose to give Barack Obama—the socialist, the foreigner, the apologist, the black nationalist—another term in office makes no sense whatsoever. It cannot be.

As the election approached, conservatives gobsmacked that Mitt Romney was trailing—and who were regularly being told by allegedly authoritative analysts like Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and Michael Barone that Romney would win easily—concocted increasingly absurd explanations for why everyone else was wrong. Then on Election Day, it turned out there was no polling or media conspiracy to hide the truth of Romney's impending victory. As Conor Friedersdorf writes, "On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while The New York Times got it right."

For a long time, liberals envied conservatives their media, the echo chamber capable of whipping up stories out of nothing and forcing the mainstream media to pay attention, capable of keeping their troops in line and bucking up their morale, capable of quickly disseminating messages far and wide, creating new stars and enforcing discipline. But perhaps it's time to look at the conservative media as a weakness, even the right's Achilles' Heel.

It isn't only that their media cause them to delude themselves; the effects sometimes bleed out beyond their brains. Consider the single most damaging moment for Mitt Romney in this election, the 47 percent tape. Where did Romney learn that number, wrapped as it was in an argument about the shocking numbers of Americans who mooch off the efforts of virtuous hard-working job creators? He almost certainly got it from Fox or conservative talk radio, where it had been in wide circulation for some time, and if it wasn't directly from listening to Limbaugh or Hannity, it came to him from somebody who did.

The next four years will be boom times for conservative media; it's always good for business when your enemies are in power. They will continue to infuriate liberals. But the next time you see Fox propagating some absurd fantasy of Barack Obama's perfidy, or see Limbaugh and Carlson ramping up another episode of race-baiting, remind yourself that they're probably doing the most harm to their own side.

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for The American Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

MORE FROM Paul Waldman