ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


Celebrity, nepotism and the GOP by mattsteinglass
April 26, 2009, 2:09 pm
Filed under: Conservatism

Meghan McCain seems, judging from her writing, to be a pretty nice person with mainly reasonable, if not very sophisticated or detailed, policy views. It’s not surprising that her policy views aren’t very sophisticated or detailed, because she just graduated from college. What is surprising is that by virtue of her celebrity last name, she’s been able to gain an extraordinarily large platform in the roiling debate that’s currently reshaping the Republican Party. With her new book deal and her well publicized spats with Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, she’s practically at the point where her views on issues have as much weight as those of other unconventional voices on the right like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam — people who’ve put in years more as policy wonks, have written books and run blogs, and have had to win their place in the public eye through persuasive thinking and writing, without any boost from name recognition.

Steve Benen finds McCain’s celebrity “odd”, and Matthew Yglesias says “I can’t help but wonder to myself who on earth is Meghan McCain?” I don’t think it’s particularly odd, given the prominence of family scions throughout conservatism over the past decade-plus — William Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, Christopher Buckley, the Podhoretz kid, George W. Bush and so forth. But I do think it’s a structural weakness. The problem is that the GOP isn’t tied into national institutions, movements or constituencies in ways that allow it to generate new stars in an organic fashion, people who are tied to real constituencies. If you look at where Democratic and liberal voices come from, they may come out of academia and the professions (Krugman, Summers, Sunstein). Or they may come out of journalism (Power, Friedman, Maddow). Or they may come out of labor (though unfortunately not enough these days — Andy Stern). These are all institutions which are historical liberal-aligned for good reasons.

But if you look at the conservative-GOP side, the institutions that ought to be generating those kinds of voices in an organic fashion aren’t. You’ve got churches, which did in fact generate many such public figures beginning in the late ’70s. But those voices (Falwell, Robertson, Dobson) have always been extremely polarizing, and at this point it looks as though the religious right has stopped being able to generate voices that appeal broadly to more Americans than they turn off. No one is replacing Gary Bauer. Then you’ve got the military, which once did generate Republican and conservative figures who commanded broad respect. But amazingly, since the Iraq War, the public figures coming out of the military have been trending liberal and Democratic. There is no conservative Paul Rieckhoff, the last general to take up a political career was Wesley Clark, and Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama. Finally, you’ve got talk radio and FOXNews. Nuff said. Because the GOP increasingly lacks solid ties to real institutions or constituencies, it’s vulnerable to being swept away by media figures and the children of past Republican politicians and intellectuals. If Meghan McCain can graduate from college and immediately take over the “young moderate Republican woman” slot in the national discourse, it’s because the slot is standing open. The Republicans, adrift and unmoored, have nobody else to fill it.

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