Neocon Groupthink

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American Groupthink

by Daniel McCarthy

Why is it that the shrillest voices demanding the resignation of Trent Lott as Senate majority leader have come from putative conservatives? Tom Daschle and Joseph Lieberman were willing to accept that Lott had simply made a mistake, carried away by the occasion of Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday. They didn’t call for Lott to step down; neither did the far-leftists of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee said that she might settle for "minimally a much larger apology." It was from Charles Krauthammer, various writers at National Review, and Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal that the harshest demands for punishment came. Other quasi-conservative institutions joined in, even if not going quite so far as to insist that Lott quit. The New York Sun, for example, excoriated Lott for the crime of having dared speak to Southern Partisan magazine in 1984.

L’affaire Lott has seen the respectable Right surpass the lunatic Left for political correctness, a fact which is more important in itself than any debate over whether or not Lott is a racist or a liability to the Republican party. One can criticize Lott without feeding into "anti-racist" hysteria, but that’s not what blue-zone conservatives have done. For Krauthammer and Noonan, Robert George and Deroy Murdock, Linda Chavez and Mona Charen, and all the rest, Lott is guilty not of stupidity, but of insensitivity. He hasn’t shown due reverence for diversity, equality and Martin Luther King.

Those of us from the red-zones of this country might wonder whether conservatives are meant to show such reverence. We’ve historically preferred liberty over equality and individualism over racial diversity, and while King was right to oppose coerced segregation, he was still a Marxist, a plagiarist, and an adulterer. As for the civil rights movement, it didn’t just get rid of regional segregation, but set up both national forced integration and, ultimately, affirmative action. No less a conservative icon than Barry Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act because of the threat it posed to federalism and property rights. But now blue-zone conservatives in prominent media positions champion King’s legacy over Goldwater’s.

What gives? The answer is that the distinction between Left and Right is less important than the distinction between "blue" and "red."

It’s groupthink, or as they say of teenagers, "peer pressure." Blue-zone conservatives live and work among leftists in Washington, DC, and its suburbs, and in Manhattan. Leftists are not only their neighbors but also their professional peers, particularly in journalism. The elites of the establishment Left and Right have frequently attended the same prestigious universities as well. Yuppies are yuppies, and right-wing yuppies like their granola just as much as left-wing yuppies do.

It’s as human an instinct as anything can be, to want the respect and approval of your peers. When your peers are politically correct socialists, you’re going to be a politically correct socialist as well, if you don’t want to be a pariah. The fact that you may want marginally lower taxes than they do means that you have to work that much harder to win their respect in those areas where you agree. If Charles Krauthammer and Peggy Noonan are a bit suspect because they don’t seem to love the poor quite as much as everybody else, they have to make up for it by proving that they are twice as anti-racist as the next conscientious denizen of the Beltway or the Upper West Side.

The leaders of the conservative movement have more in common professionally, personally, geographically, and — as a consequence — ideologically with the leaders of the mainstream Left than they do with the grassroots Right, few of whom can have been truly scandalized by Trent Lott’s peccadillo. This situation perpetuates itself because as grassroots conservatives try to move-up in the worlds of politics or journalism — that is, as they climb the ladder of the conservative movement — they have to adjust their views to fit in with their superiors, whose views in turn are shaped by other makers of respectable opinion. Print and broadcast media are at the top of this intellectual food chain; that’s why the Senate majority leader, a nominally powerful man, is in danger of being brought down by the likes of Charles Krauthammer and the gang at National Review.

Lest anyone misunderstand, however, it must be said that "conservative" media are in turn regulated by the mainstream media of which they are a subset; the New York Times and Washington Post are the peers to which, on matters as central to the liberal-democratic faith as race and equality, National Review and company must conform. The mainstream sets the limits of permissible dissent. Hence National Review repudiates its own history of defending states’ rights and adopts a position more like that of the "liberal" media.

It’s because American groupthink is not just geographic that the media play such a large role in it. The New York Times and the pundits of CNN or Fox News Channel provide a common world-view and shared frames of reference to all their readers or viewers, no matter where they may be located. Media sources also create solidarity in that what one reads or watches contributes to one’s social identity: one of the first things that a young man who has decided he’s a conservative does is to start reading National Review and perhaps the Wall Street Journal, simply because they’re supposed to be conservative. He demonstrates his membership in the conservative group by joining in a shared activity, in this case reading National Review. Because this is based more on social psychology than on reason, it’s not necessary that National Review actually be conservative, only that it be identified as conservative. Naturally what one reads or watches does not determine one’s beliefs, but the point is that one tends to choose what to read and watch based on what sort of group one wants to join.

Trent Lott’s fundamental problem is that by birth and by choice he belongs to the wrong groups, and he therefore exhibits the wrong groupthink. He’s not just politically incorrect: as a Southerner he’s also geographically incorrect, and because he attended Ole Miss instead of Yale or Stanford, he’s academically incorrect. In the milieu from which Trent Lott came, in the particular place and time he grew up, supporting segregation was what the group expected of you. Later, after legal segregation was abolished, you were still expected to stand up for the honor of Mississippi and of the South as a whole, and to provide a sympathetic reading of their history. That’s what Lott was doing in his 1984 interview with Southern Partisan, and it’s what he was doing two weeks ago at Strom Thurmond’s birthday celebration. You don’t get to be Senate majority "leader" without being a good groupthinker, and Lott is good, but at Thurmond’s party he choose to think along with the wrong group. Now he’s being brought to heel, and a message is being sent to any Southerner: if you want to get ahead in politics, you’d better think more like Charles Krauthammer and his friends and a whole lot less like the old Strom Thurmond.

The irony here is that many of the same "blue" conservatives attacking Lott style themselves as enemies of political correctness, especially on campuses. It’s a feature of groupthink that they are unaware of the inconsistency here. For the conscientious blue conservative, to be anything other than an egalitarian and a social democrat is unthinkable and impermissible; to be something else, even to deviate as little as Lott, is to become a heretic worthy of putting to the torch. In just the same way, for the far Left it is unthinkable and impermissible not to be a feminist and radical multiculturalist. Neither group is aware that the limits it draws for legitimate thought and speech are extremely narrow and based more on group psychology than on anything like logic or an external principle. The lunatic Left may be a little more aware of the reality of the situation, if anything. But the bottom line is that with the lunatic Left on the one hand, and the respectable Right on the other, the American ideological mainstream offers only groupthink.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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