With President Obama's victory over Mitt Romney, many pundits are already engaging in clichéd talk of "soul-searching" for the GOP. What they mean by this phrase differs depending on who says it: Pundits on the left as well as moderate, reform-oriented Republicans are claiming the party needs to move back to a pragmatist set of policies; tea partiers and others on the right, talk radio, and Fox News are claiming that Mitt Romney, like John McCain before him, was simply too moderate to win, and that only a true, principled conservative can lead the charge to victory.
But what Republicans really need to learn from Romney's defeat is not that their candidate was too weak or too moderate. They need to learn that their candidate was forced to adopt far more extreme policies than he previously held due to a primary process that enslaves pragmatism and electability to a rigid ideology. And at the heart of this rigid ideology is a conservative movement that's become the creature of the right-wing media.
Fox News is often described as little more than a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the reverse is the case, with the Republican Party serving as unwitting puppets of the self-serving right-wing controversy machine. Fox News and the talk radio shock jocks across the country win whether or not conservatives are in power; these purveyors of political entertainment thrive under a Democratic president, perhaps even more so than under their preferred candidates. There's big money in controversy, and controversy is what the Glenn Becks of the world do best.
At some point, Republicans will need to wake up to the current state of affairs and realize they're being held hostage to a powerful, self-sustaining entertainment industry and that the interests of the party and the interests of Fox News are not one and the same.
Indeed, the spinoffs of this conservative movement/media behemoth can be seen far and wide as bloggers like Dean Chambers take up the mantle of "true conservatism" and begin telling Republicans only what they want to hear—even if that means twisting the polling data beyond anything remotely recognizable as the truth.
Even the tea party was largely the result of a concerted effort on the part of conservative media to foment dissatisfaction and resentment. Sure, this may have helped sweep the House to the right in 2010, but more importantly it drove traffic to conservative websites and eyeballs to Fox News. And while Romney may have lost the election last night, Fox is guaranteed a strong viewership through Obama's second term.
This is what conservative writer John Derbyshire described as far back as 2009 as "Happy Meal conservatism," a lowbrow and ultimately harmful approach to rallying the conservative troops. "Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda," Derbyshire wrote at the time, "ideas by slogans." Happy Meal conservatism, he argued, is one of the major contributors to this state of affairs.
It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. "Revolt against the masses?" asked Jeffrey Hart. "Limbaugh is the masses."
Derbyshire trafficked in paranoid, lowbrow, and deeply racist tactics of his own, but his point remains intact nonetheless. And while Derbyshire may have ultimately ignored his own advice, there are others on the right who need to begin the process of distancing themselves from the right-wing media machine that's taken over their movement.
Republicans need to wake up to their damaged brand, and then they need to follow the money. It doesn't take a degree in economics to see how the shock jocks play their audiences. You don't have to listen to many Glenn Beck tirades about going back to the gold standard and their accompanying advertisements about trading in your gold jewelry for cash to see how cynical this act has become. But gold schemes are small potatoes compared to the much larger con being played on the Republican Party.
The problem is one of revolving doors. Failure for Republican politicians doesn't always have to end in tears. Play to the cameras well enough, and you might just land yourself a job at Fox News—that is, if you're not already lined up with a cozy consulting job at a lobbying firm (something politicians across the spectrum are guilty of too often than we'd care to admit.)
And so Happy Meal conservatism becomes as cyclical as it is cynical. It may bite the hands that feed it, but it shares enough of the wealth to keep up appearances.
Meanwhile, conservatives continue to grow more and more dependent on a steady diet of this fast-food political fare, further deepening the "politics of ressentiment," as libertarian writer Julian Sanchez describes it. Far from being a coherent political philosophy, Sanchez argues that modern conservatism is a "farce currently performing under that marquee [that's] an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag."
But why does this play so well on the right? Even admitting that all human beings have a penchant for the controversial and that all good narrative is driven by conflict—contrived or otherwise—why has Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the right-wing bloviators become so enormously powerful?
Sanchez argues that it's a status grievance first and foremost. Conservatives feel under attack and have "internalized the enemy's secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy."
In other words, conservatives have begun to see the writing on the wall as demographics shift and they begin to lose ground in the culture wars. Fox News is banking on this, capitalizing on the unspoken fears this may provoke, and giving those fears voice. They didn't invent fire, they just learned how to stoke it and make sure that it generates far more heat than light.
But as Sanchez points out, this is a doomed project:
Even if conservatives retook power, they wouldn't be able to provide a political solution to a psychological problem, assuming they're not willing to go the Pol Pot route. At the same time, it signals a resignation to impotence on the cultural front where the real conflict lies. It effectively says: We ceded to the bogeyman cultural elites the power of stereotypical definition, so becoming the stereotype more fully and grotesquely is our only means of empowerment.
What Republicans need to realize in the wake of their defeat is that it's not a means to empowerment, it's only a means to one end: making conservative media buckets full of money, come rain or shine.