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The Sub Prime Kristol Meltdown

[ 30 ] October 6, 2008 |

Bill Kristol continues to push Sarah Palin, and hints at his own responsibility for the pick. It’s columns like this that make me wonder whether there’ll be a reckoning in the circles of conservative punditry/journalism/activism after the election. Republicans aren’t the sort of people who are willing to forgive defeat; if the current situation holds, with McCain losing badly, Palin not helping, and the Republicans suffering severe Congressional defeats, will we see a Night of Long Knives on the other side? Is Bill Kristol ever going to be forced to (shudder) admit that Palin was a disaster?

My first thought is that the mask will never drop; Bill Kristol is not the sort of man who will ever allow us that kind of satisfaction. For one, he’s built a career out of pushing an ideology that equates admitting mistakes with appeasement. Second, his own pundit persona is dependent upon an almost preternatural confidence, and in particular the maintenance of the “Joker” smile even when the world is collapsing around him. While both of these are important, however, they’re also personal to Kristol. I suspect that there is a larger reason that any Night of Long Knives in conservative journalism is likely to be muted, at least in respect to Kristol; he plays a key role in undergirding the structure of conservative journalism as it now exists.

Right wing journalism/punditry is absurdly nepotistic, and not just in the sense that many of the major pundit/journalists are second generation. Everything depends on relationships; this is of course true in every community of this sort, but the importance of relationships is more pronounced in the world of conservative punditry than in liberal or mainstream. Every conservative writer of note has a portfolio of these relationships, which allows said writer to place articles, give talks, find jobs, get invited on junkets, and even find the best parties. Each writer or pundit also contributes to the portfolios of others, and the relationships stack; knowing somebody who knows Michael Goldfarb or John Podhoretz isn’t quite a good as having them in your portfolio directly, but it doesn’t hurt to have the second-order relationship. These relationships are the grease that makes the world of conservative journalism run; it’s mildly absurd that a community whose ideological focus rests so firmly on conceptions of “merit” depends almost entirely on relationships, but nevertheless.

In the modern configuration of the conservative media machine, Kristol occupies an unparalleled central position of power. It’s not that Kristol knows everyone (although he knows a lot of people), or that he controls all the levers of power (although he clearly has substantial influence over how the Weekly Standard and other institutions of conservative journalism and punditry offer grants, assign articles, and provide jobs); it’s that Kristol always seems to be one of the most important “stocks” in a conservative writer’s portfolio. This is often a second or third order relationship, such that the conservative writer depends on a set of contacts that depend on Kristol. But these “Kristol derivatives”, so to speak, play a critical role in where a conservative pundit falls in the journalistic food chain. There are other derivatives as well, depended on other “nodes” of power, but the Kristol derivatives have the farthest reach. A remarkable number of conservative journalists and pundits have got there start with institutions, grants, or fellowships that originate in institutions that have Kristol’s fingerprints on them.

And herein lies the rub. Relationships are the currency of conservative punditry, and that currency is essentially secured by Kristol. If the bedrock of this currency starts to founder (if Kristol drops the mask, or comes under sustained attack from conservatives), then the entire financial system is in trouble. It’s not that people think that the entire system will collapse; they just don’t know what exactly will happen if the Kristol derivatives turn toxic. At the very least, the system will undergo an earthquake, and the result of that earthquake could be unpleasant. As such, the entire system has a vested interest in making sure that the Kristol derivatives don’t turn toxic, and thus that the bedrock currency remains stable.

And so we see a happy convergence trends that will work to prevent a reckoning in conservative punditry after the election. I’m not saying that the reckoning won’t happen, just that pulling at the Kristol thread is likely to have wide-ranging consequences in conservative journalism. As such, even though Kristol played an important role in many of most disastrous elements of this administration/campaign, those who might gun for him are going to have to be careful.

…Harry Hopkins, promoted from comments:

I remember back in the late ’90s when Ira Katznelson, an eminent political scientist at Columbia, came to deliver a guest lecture to an economic philosophy class I was taking. It was a great lecture, made more so by the fact that the class was only about ten or twelve students and we got got ask all kinds of questions and got a lot of great, provocative answers. Anyhow, Prof. Katznelson described a lunch he had with Irving Kristol back either during the first Bush administration. The talk turned to William Kristol, then Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, and how he got his start in politics. Irving recalled how he talked to his friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, who secured William a place there as both an undergrad and graduate student; how he talked to Pat Moynihan, then Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, and got William an internship at The White House; how he talked to friends at the RNC and secured a job for William after he got his Harvard Ph.D.; and how he arranged with still more friends for William to teach at UPenn and the Kennedy School of Government. With that, Prof. Katznelson recalled, he then asked Irving what he thought of affirmative action. “I oppose it”, Irving replied. “It subverts meritocracy.”

Glory be.

Comments (30)

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  1. Barry Freed says:

    This is an excellent and very insightful post. That is all.

  2. Republicans aren’t the sort of people who are willing to forgive defeat; if the current situation holds, with McCain losing badly, Palin not helping, and the Republicans suffering severe Congressional defeats, will we see a Night of Long Knives on the other side?
    No. Kristol’s not the loser, Palin and McCain are. The ideology does not fail, and to be the keeper of the ideology is a cushy gig 4 EVAR.

  3. Jon H says:

    Yeah, it’s not that Kristol failed, it’s that Palin and McCain failed Kristol.

  4. FMguru says:

    Yeah, if they started demanding accountability, the whole damn enterprise would unravel like a cheap sweater.
    They’ll do the usual thing: blame illegal immigrants, the liberal media, and academic brainwashing for the sorry post-Bush state of the Conservative movement, and call on a re-dedication to Conservative principles as the solution to the GOP’s problems.

  5. cyntax says:

    “Is Bill Kristol ever going to be forced to (shudder) admit that Palin was a disaster?”
    No, since the CW will be that it was McCain’s shortcomings and Wall St. that did him, not the VP they all have the hots for. Also, not sure that the Republicans are intolerant of losers; there are a lot more 2nd try Republicans (I’m thinkg Nixon and McCain but there others) on the Presidential campaign than there ever are for Dems.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Palin 2.0 bommerang back in the next 4-8 years, at the top of the ticket and with a lot more polish.

  6. Simple Mind says:

    Brilliant post, dear RF.

  7. Dennis_D says:

    I think you are totally misunderstanding the conservative movement. Conservatives have been trained over the years to not believe in reality. Instead, they believe in Rush, conservative pundits, emails from conservative friends and Fox News. That is why you see conservatives believing that George W. Bush is a good president, that we are winning in Iraq, that tax cuts always pay for themselves, that deregulation is the key to turning around the economy, etc. You look at polls and decide that the Palin pick has been a disaster. Conservatives listen to their opinion leaders such as The Corner and decide that the problem with the McCain-Palin ticket is that the wrong person was the top of the ticket. This election could render the Republican party irrelevant at the national level and conservatives will take that to mean that the need to be even more conservative (which is what they did after the 2006 election). Bruce Bartlett learned what happens when you question the modern conservative myths. Kathleen Parker drowned in conservative hatemail and had a speaking gig cancelled when she suggested Palin quit the ticket. If any backlash occurs, it will be against conservative pundits who look at the 2008 drubbing and proposing moving away from the leadership of zombie Reagan.

  8. Simple Mind says:

    Neocons are the ‘Ndrangheta, Camorra, Cosa Nostra and Sacra Corona rolled into one. You’re damned right you’ve got to be careful when gunning for one of their luogotenenti.

  9. R. Porrofatto says:

    Kristol was a prime mover behind the PNAC and the Iraq debacle. It got him a gig at the NY Times. So, no, I don’t think we’ll see any purging too soon. Hell, if the economy totally collapses and it could be pinned on Kristol directly, they’d probably give him Leno’s gig. Remember, Medals of Freedom are for fucking up in our Bizarro World.

  10. MFA says:

    “Republicans aren’t the sort of people who are willing to forgive defeat.”
    Sure, and that’s why Richard M. Nixon faded away into obscurity after the 1960 elections. As did John McCain after the 2000 primary.
    And why, after Reagan vastly increased the size of government, the conservatives spat him right out.
    Which is to say: Conservatives, largely bereft of any logical foundation and subject to the most self-deluding relativism will forgive anyone absolutely anything so long as long as or as soon as that person increases the movement’s positon power.
    That is the sole criteria.

  11. Julia Grey says:

    We need Kristol to stick around for his function as negative bellwether: whatever he says is always wrong, and whoever he likes comes to be hated by the public.
    Bet against Kristol and you come up roses every time.
    He’s a different kind of useful idiot.

  12. Barry Freed says:

    Julia G: I thought that was K-Lo’s function.

  13. John Emerson says:

    The Dow 36,000 guy and Luskin (who still claims that there’s no crisis) are also indestructible. No one ever gets voted off that island.
    It’s like a nightmare refutation of Rorty’s theory of truth as social consensus.

  14. What I wonder about are not the core people who’ve really made their bed inside conservatism and are stuck there. Those folks will never, ever under any circumstances admit to error or miscalculation. They won’t even blame it on McCain and Palin, or on their advisors. It will, in some fashion, be the fault of liberals. I think you’re already seeing the first trial balloons for the coming narrative being let loose. Say, for example, that the financial crisis was strategically exaggerated by liberals in order to give Obama an advantage.
    What I wonder about, though, are the opportunists who have attached themselves lamprey-like to conservatism in order to get into think-tanks, get conservative benefactors, and so on. There are a decent number of bottom-feeding intellectuals and policy wonks of this type who saw about twelve years back that the largesse flowing from conservative money and institutions was going to be substantial and that there would be positions available for those who agreed to obediently parrot whatever the spin of the moment was. They’re the ones to watch: if they start deserting the ship in ways small and large, then it really might sink.

  15. Chris says:

    This crisis has gotten many rational, if traditionally conservative, thinkers to ask more questions that someone like Kristol would dare. Even carefully nonpartisan sources are feeling the need to spread the word.
    That includes Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen, president of the nonpartisan Women’s Voices for Change, who writes today (http://tinyurl.com/4k62xp) after a passionately evenhanded discussion of the crisis:
    “Vote as though your life depends on it. Trust me, it does.”

  16. Harry Hopkins says:

    I remember back in the late ’90s when Ira Katznelson, an eminent political scientist at Columbia, came to deliver a guest lecture to an economic philosophy class I was taking. It was a great lecture, made more so by the fact that the class was only about ten or twelve students and we got got ask all kinds of questions and got a lot of great, provocative answers. Anyhow, Prof. Katznelson described a lunch he had with Irving Kristol back either during the first Bush administration. The talk turned to William Kristol, then Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, and how he got his start in politics. Irving recalled how he talked to his friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, who secured William a place there as both an undergrad and graduate student; how he talked to Pat Moynihan, then Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, and got William an internship at The White House; how he talked to friends at the RNC and secured a job for William after he got his Harvard Ph.D.; and how he arranged with still more friends for William to teach at UPenn and the Kennedy School of Government. With that, Prof. Katznelson recalled, he then asked Irving what he thought of affirmative action. “I oppose it”, Irving replied. “It subverts meritocracy.”
    No kidding.

  17. David says:

    Will Bill Kristol end up getting a $700 billion bailout?

  18. Henderstock says:

    Harry Hopkins:
    Great story. Glad to hear you’re still around.

  19. CJColucci says:

    When is William Irvingson Kristol’s contract with the Times up? My impression is that he has landed on the op-ed page with a thud and bored people to death ever since. He doesn’t seem to gin up much reaction in the letters pages, no matter how outrageous he gets. I suspect that readers don’t even take him seriously enough to complain. Maybe when his contract expires, so will he for lack of interest.

  20. Herr Doktor Bimler says:

    will we see a Night of Long Knives on the other side?
    I suppose a ‘Kristolnacht’ joke would have been too easy.

  21. cleter says:

    Well, Kristol was certainly right about the twering genius Dan Quayle, who truly has stood astride the conservative movement like a Colossus for the last two decades, so he might be right about Palin, too.

  22. Eric Scharf says:

    I suppose a ‘Kristolnacht’ joke would have been too easy.
    Too inapposite, rather. Krystallnacht was a pogrom against the Jews, the Nazis’ declared scapegoats, while the Night of the Long Knives was an internal Nazi purge against the Sturmabteilung, the street thugs who helped bring the Nazis to power and whose prominence unnerved the German army.
    More cogently, the Night of the Long Knives followed upon the Nazis’ political victory and is therefore a poor analogy for a movement correcting itself (however effectively) after a defeat.
    Rob’s use of the financial metaphor has excellent, um, currency, but if one simply must use an interbellum example of a German political movement making a bad faith argument to explain a defeat and identify the responsible party, the accepted meme is the Dolchstosslegende.

  23. Mike G says:

    Right wing journalism/punditry is absurdly nepotistic
    And absurdly authoritarian.
    Power brokers like Kristol are unquestionably always right and never held to account for their massive undeniable failures, lies and hackery. They’re powerful, therefore by definition they are infallible to the cringing loyalists beneath them.

  24. farren says:

    This neatly connects to the comments I was just reading in Ezra Klein’s bit on Bad Movie Ideas.
    Just sees an attack on Michael Moore as an attack on the entire left/liberal end of the political spectrum because of an authoritarian way of thinking, an attack on one of their more respected pundits is seen as an attack on the entire right wing.
    It follows that a successful attack wounds a lot of people and an actual admission of failure is devastating. For the same reason, one would expect those with an authoritarian bent to turn viciously on authority figures who break from the consensus among other authority figures in any meaningful way. And that certainly seems to be the case.
    That said, I think there’s an element of the left (as opposed to liberals, although I’m not sure how much currency that distinction has on your side of the pond), who have similarly authoritarian instincts. Its just that the proportion of that element has significantly diminished among leftists in the developed world, while an authoritarian sensibility seems to be the bedrock on which American movement conservatism is built.

  25. farren says:

    Goddammit. I meant “Just as the right sees” where I wrote “Just sees”, para 2 above.

  26. The formalism here is the Erdös number in mathematics.

  27. Citizen K. says:

    Great post.
    At some point, it seems like there has to be a civil war among conservatives. The tension between the Limbaugh-Dobson zombies and antigovernment free-market zealots is too great. The free-market types, though, have hedged their bets with selected investment in Democrats, so maybe they’ll leave the Republicans quietly and attempt a stealth takeover of liberalism.
    I find myself distinctly unsympathetic to the likes of Kathleen Parker and David Brooks, whose “thoughtful” criticism of Sarah Palin brought down the wrath of the zombies. Brooks and Parker have been looking the other way for years, patronizing the no-nothing anti-intellectuals because they saw them as useful. They helped create the monster, so where’s the surprise when its mindlessness turns on them?

  28. PKH says:

    Adam Bellow actually wrote a book, “In Praise of Nepotism.”

  29. Ira Katznelson says:

    Regarding the post by Harry Hopkins:
    Like all games of telephone, this has some truth but has become exaggerated. Irving Kristol and I had breakfast at a conference we were attending. I asked him how his son got interested in politics, and was told that when William was 15, as I recall, Irving called Pat Moynihan to ask if he might give William an internship. We also talked about affirmative action, which he opposed on grounds of protecting meritocracy. So the core is correct, but not the embellishments about Penn and Harvard. I also don’t remember any discussion about the RNC.

  30. [...] professional-movement conservatives that Kristol’s star is on the decline, although his institutional grip on conservative punditry remains relatively strong. I should further note that when Sarah Palin is only the second worst disaster you’ve had a [...]

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