Before rank-and-file conservatives ask, "What went wrong?", they should ask themselves a question every bit as important: "Why were we the last to realize that things were going wrong for us?"
Barack Obama just trounced a Republican opponent for the second time. But unlike four years ago, when most conservatives saw it coming, Tuesday's result was, for them, an unpleasant surprise. So many on the right had predicted a Mitt Romney victory, or even a blowout — Dick Morris, George Will, and Michael Barone all predicted the GOP would break 300 electoral votes. Joe Scarborough scoffed at the notion that the election was anything other than a toss-up. Peggy Noonan insisted that those predicting an Obama victory were ignoring the world around them. Even Karl Rove, supposed political genius, missed the bulls-eye. These voices drove the coverage on Fox News, talk radio, the Drudge Report, and conservative blogs.
Those audiences were misinformed.
Outside the conservative media, the narrative was completely different. Its driving force was Nate Silver, whose performance forecasting Election '08 gave him credibility as he daily explained why his model showed that President Obama enjoyed a very good chance of being reelected. Other experts echoed his findings. Readers of The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other "mainstream media" sites besides knew the expert predictions, which have been largely born out. The conclusions of experts are not sacrosanct. But Silver's expertise was always a better bet than relying on ideological hacks like Morris or the anecdotal impressions of Noonan.
Sure, Silver could've wound up wrong. But people who rejected the possibility of his being right? They were operating at a self-imposed information disadvantage.
Conservatives should be familiar with its contours. For years, they've been arguing that liberal control of media and academia confers one advantage: Folks on the right can't help but be familiar with the thinking of liberals, whereas leftists can operate entirely within a liberal cocoon. This analysis was offered to explain why liberal ideas were growing weaker and would be defeated.
It is easy to close oneself off inside a conservative echo chamber. And right-leaning outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh's show are far more intellectually closed than CNN or public radio. If you're a rank-and-file conservative, you're probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn't accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thing; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear.
But guess what?
You haven't just been misinformed about the horse race. Since the very beginning of the election cycle, conservative media has been failing you. With a few exceptions, they haven't tried to rigorously tell you the truth, or even to bring you intellectually honest opinion. What they've done instead helps to explain why the right failed to triumph in a very winnable election.
Why do you keep putting up with it?
Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.
Conservatives were at an information disadvantage because so many right-leaning outlets wasted time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense. WorldNetDaily brought you birtherism. Forbes brought you Kenyan anti-colonialism. National Review obsessed about an imaginary rejection of American exceptionalism, misrepresenting an Obama quote in the process, and Andy McCarthy was interviewed widely about his theory that Obama, aka the Drone Warrior in Chief, allied himself with our Islamist enemies in a "Grand Jihad" against America. Seriously?
Conservatives were at a disadvantage because their information elites pandered in the most cynical, self-defeating ways, treating would-be candidates like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain as if they were plausible presidents rather than national jokes who'd lose worse than George McGovern.
How many months were wasted on them?
How many hours of Glenn Beck conspiracy theories did Fox News broadcast to its viewers? How many hours of transparently mindless Sean Hannity content is still broadcast daily? Why don't Americans trust Republicans on foreign policy as they once did? In part because conservatism hasn't grappled with the foreign-policy failures of George W. Bush. A conspiracy of silence surrounds the subject. Romney could neither run on the man's record nor repudiate it. The most damaging Romney gaffe of the campaign, where he talked about how the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes are a lost cause for Republicans? Either he was unaware that many of those people are Republican voters, or was pandering to GOP donors who are misinformed. Either way, bad information within the conservative movement was to blame.
In conservative fantasy-land, Richard Nixon was a champion of ideological conservatism, tax cuts are the only way to raise revenue, adding neoconservatives to a foreign-policy team reassures American voters, Benghazi was a winning campaign issue, Clint Eastwood's convention speech was a brilliant triumph, and Obama's America is a place where black kids can beat up white kids with impunity. Most conservative pundits know better than this nonsense — not that they speak up against it. They see criticizing their own side as a sign of disloyalty. I see a coalition that has lost all perspective, partly because there's no cost to broadcasting or publishing inane bullshit. In fact, it's often very profitable. A lot of cynical people have gotten rich broadcasting and publishing red meat for movement conservative consumption.
On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media. And movement conservatives, who believe the MSM is more biased and less rigorous than their alternatives, have no way to explain how their trusted outlets got it wrong, while the New York Times got it right. Hint: The Times hired the most rigorous forecaster it could find.
It ought to be an eye-opening moment.
But I expect that it'll be quickly forgotten, that none of the conservatives who touted a polling conspiracy will be discredited, and that the right will continue to operate at an information disadvantage. After all, it's not like they'll trust the analysis of a non-conservative like me more than the numerous fellow conservatives who constantly tell them things that turn out not to be true.
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs.