Thursday, April 8, 2010

Palin as the Test Case

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.  For 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 TNC on the related subject of the relative importance of, uh, lunatics on the two party coalitions.


  1. I really hope you're right that GOP head honchos will be smart enough to realize that a Palin nomination would be embarrassing for the party at best and disastrous for the country at worst.

    But then I wonder... what if Palin decides to run, raises a ton of money through small donations next year without a lot of help from the national party, and builds formidable leads in primary polls. (This is not an unlikely scenario.)

    What could party leaders possibly do to stop her momentum?

    And who would those party leaders be?

    (If Palin is in a strong position in January 2012, wouldn't she be the de facto head of the party?)

  2. Jonathan,
    aren't you missing a McArdle link? I'm curious.

  3. Linked fixed -- thanks.

    As far as what party leaders could do to derail Palin, I'm including people such as Rush and Hannity and the rest among the party leaders. If they, and prominent pols, speak up against her (or even just for someone else) she would rapidly find herself with very little support. As it is, don't confuse the enthusiasm for her now with clear support for her as a presidential candidate, especially against other Republicans.

    BTW, I have no idea and I don't think anyone else does either, but lately I'm thinking that it's somewhat less likely that she'll be running in 2012. But of course that's just a guess, and not a solid one at that.

  4. A point Jonathan has made many times before, but worth re-stating:

    Rush & Hannity (& Fox) win financially if Palin is nominated and then loses.

    A situation where party leaders' incentives are not clearly aligned with winning elections? Not a stable equilibrium.

  5. Any way we can access your article on elites selecting the 2004 Democratic nominee without a subscription?

  6. How about she runs, but as a 3rd party candidate. That could really throw the election a wicked monkey wrench Ross Perot style.

  7. alternately, it could very well prove to be the perfect storm for canny Republican leadership and
    "conservative" "entertainers" - what better puppet could they ask for. with little real experience or even a modicum of governing capacity, a Palin presidency would rely almost completely on the men behind the curtain.

  8. ^The truly crazy thing about Palin is that she really does "go rogue," in that she has ended up burning every single handler who has ever enabled her. So it's entirely possible that she wouldn't listen to the Cheneys of the world, but believe that her purely uninformed decisions are correct.

    Which brings me to what I see as a truly fascinating (and frightening) situation, for which I'm curious to have other's opinions about.

    Here it goes: Imagine you've got a President Palin. For whatever reason it actually happened. And then you have another 9/11-type situation, thousands (or more) of Americans killed, except this time it's terrorists from Pakistan. It doesn't really matter where they're from, but stay with me. And President Palin, being wholly uninformed yet confident in all decisions (possibly because she believes she's channeling Jesus' will), orders a nuclear strike on Pakistan (or Afghanistan, or Sudan, or wherever).

    Every handler with actual strategic experience or foresight tells her it's a terrible idea of historic proportions, but she's Sarah Palin -- she's going rogue, aka she's the decider. And she wants us to nuke Pakistan.

    Am I wrong in thinking that, as President, she would actually have the authority to drop the bomb? That as the head of the military, any underling who refused to push the button would be derelict in their duty and thus relieved of it. And thus, President Palin could literally start World War III on some kind of whim.

    Thoughts? It's not entirely impossible, is it?

  9. Aside from Palin's general incompetence, I am most worried about her apocalyptic, end-of-days worldview as a means to bringing about the next coming of Christ.


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