The mass resignation at the New Republic had several people joking about how the magazine wanted to become “vertically integrated.” What does that even mean here? But if anything was vertically integrated in 2014, it was the conservative movement. And you could see this clearly from the reaction to the Halbig decision in July.
I’m occasionally asked what conservative sites people should read. My answer is usually that people should read the blogs of the major think tanks, like AEIdeas, Daily Signal (Heritage), and Cato-at-Liberty. There are many writers who are conservative, or who cover conservatives, who are interesting to read, of course. But if you want to understand the conservative movement as the actual movement it is, you want to look upstream to where the ideas and arguments are first formulated.
From there, you can then watch them move downstream, first to the set of gatekeepers on the right who can give these arguments credibility or otherwise charge them. From there they move down to the front line right-wing writers who incorporate them into their various Hot Takes, as well as the TV and radio stations with their massive audiences.
And we have a real-time example this year. Since 2011, think tanks have been building their Halbig argument, which is that the ACA doesn’t allow state-exchanges created by the federal government to access subsidies. They learned how to discuss it. Most of all they learned how they couldn’t call it a “glitch” but instead, given administrative law, had to argue it was a conscious decision. But the argument wasn’t part of the mainstream discussion.
But then the court case had a success July 22nd, where the Federal Circuit Court for the District of Columbia agreed with Halbig. And you could then watch it move down the river and become mainstream conservative logic almost immediately.
This is where gatekeepers were important. The editors of National Review immediately jumped on it (“States were expected to go along and establish their own exchanges. When it became clear that many states wouldn’t do so because the law was so unpopular, the IRS just rewrote the law”). One of the more important conservative gatekeepers, Ramesh Ponnuru, did the same at Bloomberg (“It’s wrong, then, to say that Congress obviously didn’t intend to include this restriction”).
With that, the low-level writers could write their takes and mass media personalities could speak as if this was always obviously always the case. Rush Limbaugh (“The Obamacare law specifically says […] the only people qualified for subsidies are those who acquire their insurance through state exchanges, exchanges established by the state”) is one of many example. Those far away from the think tanks who are good at digging up embarrassing examples soon found numerous examples of Jonathan Gruber embarrassing himself once they knew what to dig for, which in turn boosted the upstream arguments. Vertical integration.
You can go back and see liberal writers trying to figure out in real time how Halbig became conservative common wisdom, when none of the conservative reporters covering the bill while this was all debated ever noted it, or that it wasn’t part of the extensive rollout strategy by ACA supporters. Brian Beutler’s Why Are Conservative Health Journalists Covering for Halbig Truthers? and Jonathan Chait’s The New Secret History of the Obamacare Deniers are good examples. It shows a genuine surprise at how vertically integrated the conservative movement can be, and how quickly a new logic became their reality once an opportunity presented itself.
An important thing I noticed from the outside is how there was no strong opposition at the gatekeeper level, only mild skepticism. Reihan Salam wrote “I’m not a Halbig guy […] I am (at best) agnostic on whether Halbig is correct.” Ross Douthat tweeted that point while describing his own “conflictedness.” But this was the extent of it. Neither they or any other gatekeepers I could find leveled a strong charge, much less a sustained case, against Halbig from within the movement. In a movement, people know when to be quiet.
I noticed this dynamic quickly when I first started reading conservatives writing about the financial crisis. Virtually all the front-line writers were mimicking an odd argument about the GSEs that I didn’t recognize from my time in the industry. I quickly looked upriver to see it all comes from AEI’s Peter Wallison. Again, some crucial gatekeepers air quiet skepticism, like his GOP colleagues on the FCIC whose email trail shows how they tried to minimize his bad arguments. But that doesn’t stop the movement writers from pushing just that narrative at all times.
Next time you read a random article from a conservative site, see if you can see how it’s just a rewritten form of some talking points created far upstream. And always remember that when a movement acts, it creates its own reality.