When I saw that Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger, founder of Redstate.com and a Macon resident, had been hired as a commentator by CNN, the lyrics of a famous Nat King Cole song came to mind:
“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,
Just as phony as it can be….”
Increasingly, public life has become a carnival, a circus, a freak show. Admittedly, it has always had those elements — that’s part of what made it interesting. From the days when speakers gave stump speeches from actual stumps, they knew they had to be entertaining and provocative to hold an audience long enough to get their message across. Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, among many others, knew how to express themselves in ways that brought attention to their cause and to themselves.
But it’s a long way from Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” to Erickson’s description of Supreme Court Justice David Souter as a child molester who engages in sex with goats (although he phrased it much less delicately). Erickson also suggested that President Obama should be sentenced by a death panel and that he got his Nobel through affirmative action. He suggested that voters ought to drag state legislators out of their homes and beat them to a bloody pulp, and defines feminists as women who are too ugly to get a date. His track record of posting unsubstantiated allegations on his blogs also should have been of concern to CNN.
But the critical point is that Erickson wasn’t hired DESPITE those utterances. To the contrary, those utterances got him the job. He is providing what the modern marketplace demands. In that sense, to direct criticism at Erickson is to miss the point: he is not the cause of the illness affecting our public discourse, he is merely a symptom. Political media requires ever-higher levels of conflict, hype and hyperbole to draw eyeballs, and by virtue of personality and intellect, Erickson happens to fit the bill.
That has implications well beyond the mediascape. Moderation and bipartisanship in politics have disappeared in large part because they don’t sell well in the blogs and cable news shows. Politicians who compromise and moderate don’t get air time; what they get instead are shrill condemnations by hired extremists who are given national podiums for their opinions. Those pundits have emerged as the true “whips” who enforce party discipline and ideological purity and make compromise too politically dangerous.
Of course, that’s not how CNN described it in welcoming Erickson to “the best political team on television:
“Erick’s a perfect fit for John King, USA, because not only is he an agenda-setter whose words are closely watched in Washington, but as a person who still lives in small-town America, Erick is in touch with the very people John hopes to reach,” said Sam Feist, CNN political director and vice president of Washington-based programming.
Erickson’s hire by CNN is in a way an insult to conservatives, because it suggests that in CNN’s mind, such behavior and incivility comes with the conservative package. It does not, as demonstrated by people such as William Bennett and George Will, and by younger conservative writers such as Conor Friedersdorf.
Erickson’s hiring reflects the bigotry of low expectations, the concept that if this is going to be a circus we better hire a clown. In fact, his elevation by CNN as a spokesman for the conservative cause and for small-town America ought to cause as much consternation on the right as it has the left, and in some quiet ways I imagine it has.