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Sarah Palin's Media Mafia

How could Palin blame the press for her demise when she owes her meteoric rise to Rush, Bill, and others in the conservative media elite?

07.08.09 6:50 AM ET

In his monthly Washington Post column, Bill Kristol writes that due to "psychological and sociological reasons too deep for me to grasp, a good chunk of elite America hates Sarah Palin." Coastal-dwelling multimillionaire Rush Limbaugh agrees. Reached on his six-city golfing vacation, the nationally syndicated talk-radio host noted, "When you have so many establishment types—inside-the-Beltway, elite, establishment types, Republican, Democratic, it doesn't matter—so eager to destroy this woman, it means they're scared to death of her."

Isn’t it actually the case that a good chunk of elite America loves Sarah Palin, or at least is willing to lend rhetorical and financial support to her? Why pretend otherwise?

Their remarks are partly correct: Many elite Americans do fear the prospect of a Sarah Palin presidency. Being elites themselves, however, Messrs. Kristol and Limbaugh should see the flaw in the "elites versus Sarah" narrative they're helping to shape. It ignores all the rich, famous, powerful individuals who helped orchestrate the Alaska governor’s rise to national prominence, lauded her thin qualifications as brashly as anyone criticized her, and persist in casting her as a victim rather than an erratic, flawed politician.

Why elide the fact that Sarah Palin is a darling of Fox News, the highest-rated cable-news network in America? Or that she is regularly defended by Mr. Limbaugh, famous television personality Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin, a nationally syndicated radio host whose latest book just ended a run atop the New York Times bestseller list? Or again, surely these savvy Sarah Palin defenders know that the editors of National Review and The Weekly Standard, tenured members of the political establishment, lined up behind her candidacy, and that Gov. Palin herself is a millionaire who enjoyed a six-figure family income before she ever took the statehouse—never mind the lucrative book contract and pricey speaking fees now available to her.

Isn’t it actually the case that a good chunk of elite America loves Sarah Palin, or at least is willing to lend rhetorical and financial support to her? Why pretend otherwise? The cynical view is that elite conservatives benefit by hiding this fact from their audiences. Better to convince them that America’s cultural and political tastemakers are as thoroughly liberal today as was the case a generation ago. In that bygone era, The New York Times and the Big Three networks determined the news cycle, the Fairness Doctrine constrained the market for conservative radio, and the post-World War II democratic coalition dominated two-thirds of the federal government.

But it isn’t any longer accurate to use “the liberal elite” as shorthand for America’s ruling class. The present decade witnessed the ascendance of Ivy League alumnus George W. Bush to the White House, GOP majorities in Congress, and John Roberts heading a Supreme Court with a 5 to 4 right-of-center advantage. Rupert Murdoch emerged as America’s most influential media mogul. A small group of hawkish foreign-policy intellectuals laid the groundwork for a foreign war of choice. Even the presidential race that led to Barack Obama’s election included a debate hosted by the pastor of an evangelical mega-church. Ruling elites, however broadly defined, looked pretty conservative.

Why hasn’t the right acknowledged as much? One reason is the Bush administration’s dismal performance: It oversaw perhaps irreversible growth in the size of government, an imprudent war in Iraq, and a thankfully failed attempt to pass an ill-conceived guest-worker program. The fiction that liberal elites always run the country helped obscure the degree to which conservative powerbrokers betrayed their principles once in office.

Yet even folks like Rush Limbaugh, who occasionally made narrow criticisms of the Bush administration, are invested in blaming America’s woes exclusively on its liberal elite, for merely invoking those words causes the conservative base to rally ever more loyally around its opinion leaders, especially the ones that make liberals angry. This politics of schadenfreude focuses the populist ire of rank-and-file conservatives at the wrong targets. Were the dread New York Times bankrupted tomorrow and the Ivy League dissolved next week, conservatives would still be plagued by a dearth of ideas, an unpopular brand, and atrocious leadership.

Hence the biggest reason that famous, influential conservative multimillionaires should be treated like the cultural and political elites they are: It’s the best way to keep them honest. Rank-and-file conservatives harbor healthy skepticism as to whether elite interests coincide with their own. It would be profitably applied to the powerbrokers on their own ideological team—the radio hosts who are more concerned with increasing their ratings than building a viable electoral coalition; Bill Kristol, who played so personal a role in Sarah Palin’s rise that he stands to benefit enormously if she ever attains higher office; outfits like Eagle Publishing that play on the insecurities of the conservative base to raise money and drive profits; etc.

Since William F. Buckley founded the conservative movement, the right has done an impressive job insinuating its members into America’s political and cultural elite, and building parallel elite institutions besides. As Eric Hoffer wrote, however, “Every political movement starts out as a cause, turns into a business, and then becomes a racket.” So long as the most powerful people on the right wing are thought of as dissidents battling the political and cultural establishment, they’ll persist mainly in accumulating wealth and power. Once they’re accurately identified as part of America’s elite, they’ll bear more scrutiny and be more accountable to the regular Americans whose interests they so often claim to champion.

Conor Friedersdorf writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.