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The Sub Prime Kristol Meltdown

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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.

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