The Conservative 'Cocoon?' - A response to J.R. Dunn's post below and more (updated with more good stuff)

A fascinating discussion on the internets today about conservatism. It dovetails nicely with J.R. Dunn's great blog post in American Thinker where JR talks about conservative elites and how out of touch they are with the heartland:

We need to know the precise reasons why too many of the core commentators of our movement turned on Sarah Palin. That is the only way that we can discover if the situation can be salvaged. What we've heard so far is only part of the truth, at best. The response to Palin by such figures as Brooks, Frum, Brookhiser, Buckley, Parker, and Noonan (Krauthammer and Will have been considerably more rational, if still mistaken) has been the farthest thing in the world from reasoned. It has been vicious and feral. People do not react to a merely disagreeable political figure in this manner. All the individuals I mentioned, including Krauthammer and Will in this case, have attacked the McCain/Palin ticket with more ferocity than they have Barack Obama, the most socialist presidential candidate since Henry Wallace. This requires an explanation.

People react that way only to threats. We have to know precisely why the conservative elite is threatened by a successful conservative governor to the point that they have completely lost their bearings. The reasons we've heard so far are nonsense -- you don't call a woman a "cancer" because she says "like" too much or wears flashy shoes. If these questions are not answered, then we will be obliged to formulate our own.

My opinion is no mystery to readers of this site -- that the urban conservative crowd is frightened of Palin because she represents a threat to the standard model of conservatism constructed since the wilderness years of the 1930s, in which a highly-educated and well-connected East Coast coterie led a much larger, less-informed  heartland contingent. This, like it or not, is elitism. By their very nature, elites tend to corrode over time. And Sarah Palin, through the very fact of her showing up, has revealed this to be the case in our circle. She upset the enclave conservative applecart, and now they are angry -- a lot angrier than they have been at any lefties in recent memory.

Well, applecarts are made for upsetting -- they must be knocked over from time to time, to assure against smugness, arrogance, and decay. You can't simply decry events like this -- you have to learn from them. That is what our little elite is refusing to do. And that tells us all we need to know.

What JR is talking about is what Ross Douthat of The Atlantic Monthly calls a Conservative "Cocoon:"

Just to clarify: Sarah Palin's Alaska is not the conservative cocoon. Neither is Tim Pawlenty's Minnesota, or Mike Huckabee's Arkansas, or any other place out in flyover country where a populist conservative became a popular and successful governor. The cocoon is the constellation of mutually-reinforcing conservative institutions - think tanks and advocacy groups, talk-radio shows and websites - that can create the same echo-chamber effect that the liberal media has long produced, and that at times makes it difficult for the Right to grapple with reality. The cocoon is the place where it took an awfully, awfully long time for conservatives to admit that the post-2004 crisis in Iraq wasn't just a matter of an MSM that wouldn't report the good news. The cocoon is the place where conservatives persuaded themselves, in defiance of most of the evidence, that the reason the GOP lost Congress in 2006 was excessive spending, and especially excessive pork. And today, the cocoon is the place where conservatives are busy convincing themselves that Sarah Palin's difficulties handling high-profile media appearances aren't terribly important, that her instincts are more important than her grasp of national policy, and that the best way to defeat Barack Obama is to start with the lines that Palin has used on the stump - Ayers, anti-Americanism and ACORN - and take them to eleven.

So when I say that a populist conservatism needs elites, what I really mean is that it needs elites who can step outside this cocoon and see national politics more clearly - whether they work for conservative outlets, MSM outlets, or something else entirely. This is not, I repeat not, a matter of listening to Beltway conventional wisdom instead of the practical wisdom of the heartland. It's a matter of recognizing political realities, instead of denying them outright - whether you're in DC, New Hampshire, or Wasilla. The Sarah Palin who ran for statewide office in Alaska appeared to understand this, which is why she seemed like such a promising figure to me months before McCain selected her: As governor, she was conservative and pragmatic, right-of-center and

anti-ideological. The trouble is that since she's burst on to the national stage, she's entered a right-wing world that's bent on, well, cocooning her - telling her how great she is regardless of whether she gets up to speed on policy and handles Katie Couric's questions, feeding her lines that appeal primarily to the segment of the electorate that's already in conservatism's corner, and calling out anyone who criticizes her as a cocktail-swilling elitist.
Mark Steyn has a slightly different take on this "cocoon." In fact, Steyn was responding to Ross Douthat's post explaining why the grassroots "need" elites. Douthat (whose recent book The Grand New Party lays out a conservatism that is more populist and thus able to appeal more to America's working class) wrote above that Steyn misunderstands his idea of a "cocoon" but I'll let you decide.


Yet, in contrast to other industries, our chattering classes are uniquely concentrated in Ross Douthat's DC/NY corridor. Isn't this a little odd? And doesn't it pose particular problems for Republicans? Conservative elites live in liberal jurisdictions - and, way out back in the "conservative cocoon", it gives them the whiff of absentee landlords, who enrich themselves on the strength of various holdings in ramshackle colonies but have no desire to spend much time there. Whatever one feels about what Ross Douthat calls the "conservative cocoon", it elects conservative mayors, conservative school boards, conservative road agents, conservative state reps, and conservative governors: it's the only place to go to experience conservatism as applied in practice. On the other hand, Mr Douthat's aforementioned corridor will once in a while elect a Michael Bloomberg or a Christie Whitman, and that's it: conservatism remains strictly a theoretical proposition.

That's why the metropolitan sneers about the size of Wasilla were extremely ill-advised, and not just because of the implication that the mayors of, say, New Orleans, San Francisco or Detroit are therefore more qualified to be in the White House. If it weren't for small towns, suburbs and rural districts, there would be no conservative government at all. With a few exceptions (such as Vermont), "blue states" mostly turn out to be red states with a couple of big blue cities (Pennsylvania, for example, or even California). Almost by definition, an effective conservative executive - the kind you might want in the White House - can only come from flyover country.

So, when a conservative pundit mocks Wasilla, he's mocking conservatism as it's actually lived, as opposed to conservatism as a theoretical fantasy playground for the purposes of cocktail-party banter.

I think Steyn is being slightly unfair to Ross - especially at the end of his missive where he skewers  the East Coast elites:

As for Sarah Palin, I think she could use a fewer sharper moose gags, but I'm not sure David Brooks is the go-to guy for that. And, to return to his Charlie Rose "Barack is the mountain" shtick, any PBS-watching inbred stump-toothed knuckle-dragging plaid-clad mountain man not yet face down in the moonshine or enjoying a bunk-up with his sister might think that Mr Brooks' bizarre metaphor gives the game away: the "conservative cocoon" is somewhere you drive through en route to the hiking trip.

So what gives? Is Douthat right? Has conservative media - blogs, talk radio, and the small but influential mags like NRO and Weekly Standard - created an "echo chamber" where our supposed intellectual betters on the coasts can step outside this "cocoon" and tell us the "political truth" about Palin or any other conservative?

Or are JR and Steyn on the button? Are our "elites" out of touch with real conservatives in flyover country and they are simply scared of looking like rubes to their liberal friends?

Allow me to referee this dispute and call a foul on both sides while awarding points to both sides as well. (And if that makes me a straddler, so be it. I happen to believe that both sides make excellent points.)

The roots of this dispute are as old as conservatism itself; elites (the best among us rising as a result of their own talent and efforts) versus what we might call "the levelers" - those more egalitarian conservatives who distrust any aristocracy be it the result of birth or one's own efforts. For lack of a better label, let's term these conservatives "populists" (although many would probably reject that label because its historical baggage).

The friction between the two sides is obvious. What has brought it to the fore now is distrust. There is more trust in a roomful of thieves today than there is in a room full of conservatives.  And Palin is the focal point where both sides seek to measure the other's conservative bona fides. The populists see most criticism of Palin coming from elites as signs of squishiness. They believe (rightly) that the elites have no idea how embattled they feel. To many in the heartland, this race has been a nightmare what with the government of George Bush abandoning all pretense that they were conservative and resorting to rank socialism to deal with the financial crisis.This, coupled with a mainstream media so obviously in the tank for Obama along with a fierce rejection of conservatism by many of their friends and neighbors has literally upended the world the populists knew just a few short years ago.

And into this collapsing world come their supposed betters telling them they are wrong about Palin. The elites simply cannot fathom why the populists would latch on to Palin and invest so much of their loyalty and admiration.

Palin represents the future to these populists. She's like the first born of a monarch - all the hopes for future happiness and success rests on her shoulders. If McCain goes down, the heartland has Palin to look forward to. This attitude has caused the populists to overlook or ignore some of Palin's obvious shortcomings - something that the elites cannot do, being "realists" who can "step outside the conservative cocoon" and see things as they "really are."

By damning Palin along with the liberals, the elites come off as "piling on" - something more akin to betrayal than a simple disagreement about politics. So the elites are insensitive while the populists are oblivious. And Palin?

My personal belief is that if the elites would give her six months or a year in Washington in a McCain administration, she would be more than ready to take over if worse came to worse. She has proven to be tough, smart, and possessing good political instincts. But the elites have a point when they say that she simply is not up to speed on national issues now nor will she be before inauguration. And using her as an attack dog is not the best use of her talents. She articulates a fine conservative vision in language that all Americans can understand and embrace. And when she looks into a camera, she is pure magic - a gift that any politician in America would kill for.

So is this really a set to about Palin? Or is there something a little deeper at work tearing at both elites and populists? At bottom, I think the elites blame the base for what could very well be an electoral disaster while the populists are all set to lay the blame for any election disappointments at the feet of the elites for what they see as a betrayal of conservatism itself in its hour of need.

And at this point, I see no way over the wall that is beginning to separate these two strains of conservatism that need each other if the movement is going to resurrect itself following what may be shaping up as a disaster of historic proportions.


Robert Stacy McCain lays in to Douthat something fierce. And Patrick Ruffini isn't far behind.

The crack up is in full swing.


Frequent AT contributor Lee Carey weighs in here. 

Contributor Chris Stigall gets in on the fun in another blog post above.