Mark Levin, Eric Cantor, and the Media Cocoon

June 19th, 2014 1:26 PM

The Liberal Clerisy Media never saw it coming. They never heard of Dave Brat. And therein lies a considerable media tale.

Let's be clear. The person responsible for electing Dave Brat and defeating Eric Cantor is...Dave Brat. But this is as good a moment as any to have a discussion about conservative talk radio and its role in various races around the country.

The other day over in The Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and a contributing editor to the City Journal, wrote a very perceptive piece titled Watch What You Say, The New Liberal Power Elite Won't Tolerate Dissent. Kotkin said, in part:

In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class -- what I call the progressive Clerisy -- that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.

An alliance of upper level bureaucrats and cultural elites, the Clerisy, for for all their concerns about inequality, have thrived, unlike most Americans, in recent years. They also enjoy strong relations with the power structure in Washington, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street.

As the modern clerisy has seen its own power grow, even while the middle class shrinks, it has used its influence to enforce a prescribed set of acceptable ideas. On everything from gender and sexual preference to climate change, those who dissent from the official pieties risk punishment.

.Of course, every society needs a clerical class, to instruct the young and maintain cultural standards. But in the past, at least in modern America, they tended to be a tolerance for fairly disparate views. Today's Clerisy, by contrast, is increasingly homogeneous in its beliefs- despite pockets of conservative power such as the Heritage Foundation and most notably the media empire controlled by the Murdoch family.

The modern Clerisy's homogeneity springs from their social conditioning. Educated along similar ideological lines at major universities, they tend to be geographically concentrated in wealthy, "progressive" places, where few dissent from the prevailing worldview. As such they breathe, as analyst Walter Russell Mead suggests, "within a cocoon." Inside their urban cocoons they operate from a thoroughly internalized set of progressive tropes on such issues as the environment, urbanism, gender and race. In practical terms, such as in their support of President Obama and the Democratic Party, they are both broadly allied with centers of power and influence, much as the clergy was in Medieval and early modern times.

..Today's Clerisy attempts to distill today's distinctly secular "truths"-on issues ranging from the nature of justice, race and gender to the environment-and decide what is acceptable and that which is not. Those who dissent from the accepted point of view can expect their work to be simply ignored, or in some cases vilified.

What does what we call the Clerisy media have to do with the defeat of Eric Cantor? With all those shocked mainstream media stories where they are suddenly desperate to talk to .Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham? Take a look at this story  from Margaret Sullivan over at The New York Times. The headline reads: Why Didn't the Data-Driven Media See Eric Cantor's Defeat Coming?

"Was the coverage - or lack thereof - of Eric Cantor's doomed campaign an epic fail by the media? Or was Mr. Cantor's defeat just one of those inevitable surprises that keeps political junkies coming back for more?
Certainly, the House majority leader's loss in the Virginia primary Tuesday night seemed to catch everyone by surprise, including those media types who specialize in prediction and prognostication.

At Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, stunned headlines ranged from "The Eric Cantor Upset: What Happened?" to "Eric Cantor's Loss Was Like An Earthquake."

At The Times, one headline read: "Why Did Cantor Lose? Not Easy to Explain." One paragraph read as follows: "There were very few pre-election polls, though one survey conducted for the Daily Caller by Vox Populi, a new Republican firm, showed Mr. Cantor just over 50 percent and ahead by 12 points. News media accounts suggested that Mr. Cantor's campaign was confident, and one internal poll showed he had a 34-point advantage.

The expression "caught flat-footed" comes to mind. The Cantor race was just never seen as anything but a slam dunk."

Let's repeat that last sentence from the Times writer. "The expression `caught flat-footed' comes to mind. The Cantor race was just never seen as anything but a slam dunk."

How does that happen? It happens because, as Mr. Kotkin quoted Walter Russell Mead, the Clerisy media, like the larger Clerisy, lives "within a cocoon."  Educated - make that conditioned - in the same kind of ideologically inclined institutions, they all believe some version of the same thing. Which opens them wide to being caught "flat footed" on something like the Eric Cantor upset.

Which brings us to the world of conservative talk radio.

Let's be candid here.  The Clerisy media..aka the liberal media or the "mainstream" media..has a cartoon view of conservative talk radio.  Rush Limbaugh points out on occasion the obvious with liberal coverage of his show. Which is to say, the liberal media doesn't listen to Rush's show. They form their impressions of Rush from snippets heard in the media, snippets that are generally - and deliberately - presented out of context. This can be said as well of Mark Levin or Laura Ingraham or Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck or whomever.

In short, the Clerisy media is genuinely clueless about conservative talk radio, not to mention the larger conservative movement. They couldn't understand the difference between Eric Cantor and Dave Brat if their accuracy depended on it. Which, suddenly on Tuesday night the 10th, it did.

All of which means when the Cantor loss abruptly appeared on the radar screen, the instant question in the Clerisy media was "how could this possibly happen?"  Then a mad scramble to air interviews with two talk radio hosts - Levin and Ingraham -  who were well out there with vocal support for Cantor opponent Brat.

But to credit either Mark or Laura with this win is foolish. Why? Because it assumes something about the talk radio audience that simply isn't true.The audience that listens to conservative talk radio is decidedly not an audience of robots.  If there are robots in this equation, they are the Clerisy journalists who are.Clerisy journalists. For all it's renown, conservative talk radio is as unfamiliar to the liberal journalists of the Clerisy as the depths beneath the surface of Mars.

Let's use Mark Levin as an example. Full disclosure, Mark is a former colleague from Reagan days. He's been involved in the conservative movement since he was a kid. Locally in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he battled the GOP Establishment of the day - elected to a seat on the school board when he was nineteen - whirling through law school by the time he was twenty-two There he was working for Ronald Reagan in 1976 in the run against Gerald Ford, and again in 1980. He's worked in the White House and in Cabinet departments, one of the latter as the chief of staff to longtime Reagan friend and conservative leader Attorney General, Ed Meese. He heads the Landmark Legal Foundation, which carries the conservative flag for limited government in endless battles with government agencies and liberal special interest groups. In addition, there's his famous and wildly successful talk radio show, plus five bestsellers, four of them making the case for the Constitution.

All of which is to say, Mark Levin is a genuine conservative leader. Smart, well-informed, at ease in any intellectual discussion of the day, which he generally tends to lead. And yet?

And yet, inside the media Clerisy's cocoon Mark Levin, if he's thought of at all, is seen as some sort of cartoon. A this and a that, a that and a this, not worth listening to in the same fashion it isn't worth listening to Rush or Sean or Glenn or Laura.yada yada yada. Then along comes the Eric Cantor election and these people are gobsmacked! Stunned to learn that voters in the 7th District of Virginia have been listening to.. Mark Levin. Who in turn has been talking with Dave Brat - three different times in the run up to this election. And the Clerisy media stampede is on. Get me Mark Levin! Call Mark Levin! Interview Mark Levin!

And the immediate assumption is.Mark Levin elected Dave Brat! No, wait, it was Laura Ingraham. Quick, what did Rush have to say.or Sean.or Glenn?

Which brings us to the Clerisy media's view of the conservative talk radio audience. And just as they completely miss the seriousness of Mark Levin, unaware or uncaring of his longtime leadership in the conservative movement, the next mistake is to dismiss Mark's audience as a bunch of yahoos. Or robots. To believe that all Mark or any other host has to do is wind them up and let them loose and the audience does his bidding or that of some other host.

This isn't simply wrong, it's silly. If I may - ignorant. And ignorant in the literal definition of the word as Webster's precisely defines it:  "lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified."

One spectacular example of just how ignorant the Clerisy media can be were the spate of stories (like this one in the Times ) or this one  from ex-Politico reporter Reid Epstein at the WSJ that suggested Cantor lost because he was Jewish. Not to put to fine a point on this, but to say Mark Levin was responsible for defeating Cantor blissfully ignores the fact that, like Eric Cantor, Mark Levin is.wait for it.Jewish. You can't make this craziness up.

But the fact that these kind of things are an occasion in today's conservative corners for eye-rolling if not laughter doesn't lessen the problem of the Clerisy media. They have a cocoon problem, and it's a serious one, as their flat-footedness at the results of the Cantor election so vividly illustrates.

And they are not alone. Unfortunately this Clerisy cocoon is shared, albeit to a lesser extent, by Establishment Republicans and, alas, some in the conservative media. The other day over at Commentary, the estimable John Podhoretz referred to Cantor as "a whipping boy for ratings-hungry radio chatters", essentially spitballing conservative radio. And various other conservatives refer to hosts like Mark (if not specifically Mark) as caring (in the words of our friends at the Wall Street Journal) "mainly about their media market share."

Respectfully, the notion that having an obscure challenger to a House Majority Leader on the air three times is a ratings boost to a national radio show is as humorous as it is wrong. Suffice to say, until his victory the other night, Dave Brat was hardly a ratings getter. Outside of the 7th District of Virginia the national name recognition of Eric Cantor himself, much less Dave Brat, was doubtless close to zero. But more to the point, again using Mark Levin as an example, here's somebody  - Levin - with a lengthy, extensive track record as a conservative. A track record that long predates his radio show. To listen to Mark Levin today discuss immigration or Eric Cantor or Dave Brat or anything else on the radio is to listen to the Mark Levin I and so many others have spoken to long before he was a radio star. Ratings have no more to do with what Mark Levin says on the radio than circulation drives the editors views at Commentary or the WSJ. It is precisely the reverse.

The fact that Mark has a space in the media world overwhelmingly dominated by Clerisy media to discuss conservatism on the radio - which is to say to present a distinctly non-Clerisy view of the world - is exactly why his ratings are so good. The fact that the WSJ has a conservative editorial page is precisely why it gets read. The fact that Commentary is identified with conservatism is precisely why Commentary gets read. It is hardly the case that somebody at either publication sits in a conference room and says.if we want circulation we should write conservative.

It's old news to say that the liberal news media is biased. It is, and this very site - NewsBusters - documents that bias relentlessly and in detail 24/7.

But old news or not, the upending of Eric Cantor and the subsequent rush to hear from Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham is a particularly vivid illustration of just how bad the problem of a cocooned Clerisy media really is.

Unfortunately, this problem doesn't end with the news of the missed story that was right there in the 7th District of Virginia for all to see or to grasp by listening to Mark Levin or Laura Ingraham.  Iraq is under siege, the IRS and the VA are in turmoil, Benghazi is about to be investigated, the US southern border is being flooded with parentless kids..and there's more, so much more going on out there.

Unless and until the Clerisy media gets out of its cocoon of assumptions, they will be perpetually behind the eight ball. Listening to Mark Levin might just be a good way to begin to break out. 


About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania.