Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

A  couple  weeks ago I was making the 3 hour drive from Columbus, Ohio to Louisville. Bored with my music collection, I decided to pass the time on AM radio. For about an hour I was able to listen to the local NPR affiliate. NPR, of course, is a decidedly liberal-leaning organization; its progressive worldview was obvious in its news coverage and its commentary. Yet for all its wayward politics, the voices on that station sounded smart, calm, and reasonable. I didn’t listen because I agreed with everything I heard. I listened because what I heard sounded like it came from a thoughtful human being.

After about fifty miles of driving, the public Columbus station lost signal. So I did a scan and found an impressively powered news station based in Louisville. A local host was in the middle of what I think was her opening monologue. I could tell immediately she was a conservative. Actually, truth be told, I could tell she was a conservative before I could follow what she was talking about. Her voice carried a shrill, perturbed timbre, and she spoke into the microphone with the exaggerated deliberance of an exasperated schoolteacher corralling an incorrigible classroom.

Memory fails me, but I believe she was complaining about President Obama’s immigration policy. Lots of space for fair critique there. But the details of her argument were almost irrelevant. She didn’t stay on one talking point long enough to develop it; rather, she bounced around quickly, fortifying her case that “the far Left”–the only term she used to describe liberals– was ruining America. She riffed on the decrepit state of American parenting, prompting one of her callers to suggest that parents of misbehaving youth be thrown in prison to motivate other parents to control their kids.

Not long after this, I was again listening to a talk station in Louisville. The morning host’s lead was the US women’s soccer team’s victory in the World Cup. Seemingly out of nowhere, the host blurted out, “Really, the only reason most of America watches women’s sports is to see if something slips out of those uniforms.” I stopped my work and stared at my iPad in disbelief, almost certain that I’d heard a radio morning host’s last broadcast.

Now, dear reader, let me ask you a question. When you read that a radio host said that America watches women’s sports mainly to see a wardrobe malfunction, do you instinctively think that host was a liberal, or a conservative?

If you said “conservative,” then you’ve discovered the toxic effect of what I call crank conservatism .

Conservatism is an intellectually robust, historically rich, culturally empowering political philosophy. It has a wealth of erudite philosophers, insightful journalists, and admirable public figures. And I would certainly argue that progressivism has its share of idiocy, bombast, and crankness. The difference though seems to be that conservatism is tolerant of absuridty in its ranks in a way that progressivism isn’t (or at least, isn’t yet).  Too many conservatives seem to believe that not being a liberal is its own intellectual reward. The radio host I heard outside Columbus didn’t quite say she agreed with her listener’s call for imprisonment on underachieving parents, but she “hmm’d” and “mmhm’d” sympathetically throughout, as if to say, “I don’t quite think your suggestion is good, but thank you for saying something no progressive would dare say.”

It’s this low expectation  mentality that empowers political con jobs. In a political con job, a sloganeer arouses the passions of his audience without committing himself to a real idea or a real worldview. The con’s viability in public leadership is totally beside the point. The point is there are lots of angry conservatives people out there who are thrilled that a man with a microphone is finally saying what they want to say to the people they want it said to. Reality is irrelevant. The con’s entire political appeal is that he “tells it like it is;” who cares what “it” means, anyway?

Crank conservatism always styles itself as “honesty,” “real talk,” and “pulling no punches.” But when you put it next to the world of ideas, facts, and truth, it looks like more like an angry delusion. Crank conservatives have a hard time keeping their own story straight; they’ll often lose track of what they say they believe, since they are inherently creatures of a moment, aiming less for cohesive knowledge than for maximum distance from “the enemy.”

Crank conservatism isn’t actual conservatism. Actual conservatism isn’t just rhetoric but reality, based in a responsible and truth-seeking worldview of human nature and human history. Is that the kind of conservatism we see in conservative culture? I’m afraid not. And we may be reaping the whirlwind. When a lot of people get to watch a crank opportunistic win polls and get interviews, with the letter R following his name, can they tell he’s a fraud? Not if they turn on the radio.