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Gave their souls for the cause

By Dylan Matthews

Conor Friedersdorf's piece on D.C. journalist/advocacy culture has provoked its fair share of commentary already. Not living in Washington myself, I'll leave the task of defending the city, and its social life, to Ryan Avent and Jonathan Chait. But I think Friedersdorf is wrong on a separate level from the one Avent and Chait diagnose. This is what he considers the primary danger of living as a political writer in the District:

I knew that if I hung around long enough, a day would come when an acquaintance who I genuinely liked as a person would sell out by writing a book that we both knew to be dishonest, or stay silent in the face of some indefensible [nonsense] to preserve the viability of his career, or otherwise become complicit in the most destructive habits of America's professional political elites.

That it wouldn't be a close friend – it’s vanishingly seldom that people who've earned and deserve loyalty demand it -- didn't keep me from lamenting the inevitability of that day, or the prospect of sticking around so long that I myself became complicit, growing corrupt or else ignoring critique-worthy things for social convenience, a habit that would seem to snowball rather quickly until it reached the same endpoint.

This certainly makes sense for Friedersdorf. He's a heterodox conservative, and so finds himself needing to break away from traditional right-wing views on things on a more regular basis than most. As someone who appreciates it when people point out flaws with right-wing dogma, I like that about his writing. But suppose someone were actually a true-blue conservative. Suppose that their convictions aligned more or less identically with those of the Heritage Foundation. Would they recognize as "critique-worthy" the same things Friedersdorf does? I'm sure Friedersdorf and I would find things in such a person's book dishonest, but would the writer, in private, admit it as well? Probably not. They'd probably be more inclined to believe tax cuts spur investment and economic growth than I do, but that doesn't make them a craven, partisan hack. It makes them a conservative.

All of which is to say, I think Friedersdorf is projecting. Certain outlets, like The Atlantic or Slate, tend to favor heterodoxy, novel ideological positions, and general contrarianism. But the "left" and "right" ideological groupings, along with their associated magazines, think tanks, and other institutions, exist for a reason: many, if not most, people fall into one of them. It's not corrupt for someone who aligns pretty well with one of those causes to act in ways that advance its interests. On the contrary, that amounts to an admirable commitment to their vision of justice. Do we want to stop that? And is the existence of institutions that select for it so abominable?

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post Editors  |  May 25, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
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As Ezra has pointed out, the primary fault lines in the legislature are political, rather than ideological. I think we've seen that this has filtered on down through think-tanks and the rest of the extended party apparatus; nobody could honestly believe, for example, that the Laffer curve applies to America today without a vested interest (financial or political) compelling them to do so.

There's a fine line between being committed to a vision of justice and being a craven partisan hack.

Posted by: adamiani | May 25, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

"I knew that if I hung around long enough, a day would come when an acquaintance who I genuinely liked as a person would sell out by writing a book that we both knew to be dishonest ... "

I think Friedersdorf is trying to say that popular conservative ideas are not true conservative ideas, and that eventually one of his friends in Washington, were he to live there, would give in (to money?, fame? loyalty obligation?) and write something like "Going Rogue" or "DOW 36,000".

Possibly he is conceding that conservative principle is often just the rhetoric of principle to paraphrase this (very good) article:

Posted by: JasonFromSeattle | May 25, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

To a large extent I would like it to stop, yes. When the Heritage Foundation condemns as a socialist abomination a bill which closely resembles the health-care reform ideas proposed by Mitt Romney, Bob Dole and by the Heritage Foundation themselves, that's not being an ideological conservative. That's politics, that's self-interest, and as David Frum has discovered, sometimes you have to play along with that kind of nonsense just to keep your job.

Posted by: bigmandave | May 25, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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