Against Intellectual Provincialism
Epistemic Closure Revisited
Eons ago in blog-years, Julian Sanchez provoked some indignant responses by suggesting that conservatives are too dependent on a closed, self-referential media ecosystem. Sanchez’s original post elicited a sharp reply from Jonah Goldberg, who argued that for all its faults, the Fox News-talk radio axis is still better than the alternative (the alternative presumably being a world in which conservatives regularly consume non-conservative media). Now Goldberg is back, endorsing a strikingly familiar thesis from the Ashbrook Center’s blog:
One of Sharron Angle’s problems was that she had a way explaining conservative positions in a way that put them in a bad light, and she made at least one statement that was either obnoxious or a threat of sedition depending on how charitably you want to interpret it. I think an even bigger problem than her more famous quotes is that she is a rightworld provincial. She seemed very uncomfortable talking to any audience that she wasn’t sure was friendly. If you can find the videos, check out her appearance on FOX and Friends and then her thirty minute interview with one of the Nevada television stations. She exuded anxiety in front of skeptical or indifferent audiences.
The author, Pete Spiliakos, explained the phenomenon of “rightworld provincialism” in an earlier post:
But the distinctly conservative and antiestablishment tendencies within the Tea Parties can produce political problems. In his autobiography, Richard Brookhiser uses the term “rightworld” to describe the interlocking network of conservative journalists, activists, thinkers, and politicians. But there is another rightworld too. It is one in which you get most of your media from right-leaning sources and never had to compete with sharp liberal opponents for the allegiance of persuadables or thought much about how to do so. This rightworld is much bigger and many Tea Partiers are part of it.
The problem isn’t even that this person is wrong on the merits, it is that they aren’t comfortable dealing with the critique, and sure as heck aren’t comfortable dealing with it in an environment where the audience is not inclined to take it easy on him because he is one of us . . .
I recommend reading both entries, but the gist of Spiliakos’s argument is that immersing yourself in a closed, ideologically-friendly media environment isn’t a particularly effective way to prepare yourself for the rough-and-tumble of facing the other team. This point should be immediately familiar to anyone who read Sanchez’s old post.
Open-minded discourse never won us no elections
It’s striking that Golberg went from dismissing Sanchez’s argument to favorably linking to Spiliakos’s entry in the space of just a few months. Did something change his mind? I doubt it. The difference, I think, can be traced to last Tuesday’s results and Spiliakos’s framing: his case against rightward provincialism isn’t some high-minded appeal for greater intellectual engagement, it’s a straightforward argument for better political tactics. Candidates who freak out at the sight of the dread MSM, who can’t effectively reach undecided or skeptical voters, who cower in fear at the thought of an MSNBC interview – these candidates aren’t going to win many elections. Tea party politicians like Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell are often mocked for portraying themselves as avatars of Real America, but I think we miss how integral this belief is to their entire approach to campaigning. If everybody is like me, their line of thinking goes, why bother talking to undecideds or wavering voters from the other side of the aisle? Absent the mythology of a silent conservative majority just waiting to be preached to, this entire approach to politics literally makes no sense.
Amid all the conservative self-congratulation following the elections, the practical consequences of rightworld provincialism – or epistemic closure, if you prefer – are pretty evident. Christine O’Donnell and Sharon Angle lost decisively. Marco Rubio – a candidate whose ideological views are basically indistinguishable from an Angle or an O’Donnell – won. His acceptance speech gives you an idea of why this is the case. Rubio seems genuinely comfortable with presenting a straightforwardly conservative message for mass consumption, while Angle and O’Donnell never bothered to adapt themselves to life outside of “rightworld.”
But what does this have to do with your blog?
Because this is a blog, no post about “framing” and media criticism would be complete without some totally unnecessary commentary on the state of online discourse. Brace yourselves.
We’ve added some new contributors, and a few commenters who shall remain nameless have accused us of drifting leftward. Perfecting a particular ideological alchemy has never been the aim of this blog, so allow me to clarify: We do not have quotas or slots or term limits. We do not believe in moderation for moderation’s sake or achieving the focus-grouped balance of a CNN roundtable. We play host to a variety of writers with some genuinely crazy ideas, but I like to think that everyone here shares an aversion to intellectual provincialism, left, right, or otherwise. Most political controversies involve clashes over deeply-held values or genuinely difficult empirical questions that don’t lend themselves to easy, dialogue-driven consensus, but I do believe that arguing politely yet firmly with the other guy is the best way to improve your own arguments and maybe learn something in the process. So come sharpen your wits in our arena. And who knows? Maybe you’ll convince the odd straggler to defect from the other side.