Conflicts of Interest in the Punditocracy

I’m with Dave Weigel on this:

Still, it’s jarring to see D’Souza making the latest attack. His book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, is a mess. His most memorable previous books were messes, too. Every time he publishes a new mess, it gets the full Pastor Jones treatment in the respectable press. That’s had basically no effect on his ability to get published or his ability to get onto the stage at conservative conferences. But it is good for liberals. D’Souza was the first modern conservative author to discover — the hard way — that if you want to be a pundit, there is no downside to making a reprehensible argument. The downside comes for the people who may agree with your politics but not your argument.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that reprehensible arguments are always political losers — the notion that tax cuts can increase revenues is reprehensible but it’s been a huge political win. Still, I think Weigel is right about D’Souza in particular and also that people generally underrate the conflicts of interest that exist between pundit-entrepreneurs and the political movements they represent. Think about Newt Gingrich. It’s hard for an ex-politician driven from office by sex scandal and electoral defeat to stay in the public eye. A Newt Gingrich who says things to reporters like “Barack Obama’s policies haven’t reduced the unemployment rate or beaten the Taliban in Afghanistan” doesn’t get in the headlines.


But the more restrained criticism seems a lot more politically potent to me. It’s tethered to reality, it connects to ordinary people’s concerns, it’s potentially persuasive to people who voted for Obama in the past, etc. And if you’re an elected official who people are paying attention to because you actually matter, that’s the kind of stuff you’re going to want to stick with. But if you want people to buy your books or listen to your radio show or pretend to believe that you’re about to launch a presidential campaign, then you need to find something more “explosive” no matter how goofy it is.