Young Conservative Pundits in Three Easy Traits
The ranks of conservative pundits are swelling with young advocates of odd upbringing and unlikely prominence. But their youthful looks and throwback sensibilities allow them to advocate and oppose where older, stodgier Republicans dare not tread.
“I’m proud I’m a virgin. I’m glad I’m a virgin. I don’t even mind talking about it. So maybe you wonder: Why am I a virgin? It’s actually very simple. I am a virgin because I choose to wait until I get married.”
Ben Ferguson, the proud virgin in the above quote, is “America’s Youngest Talk Radio Host” and author of the plaintively, pleadingly titled It’s My America, Too. An unnaturally cherubic 22-year-old with little regard for liberals and lots of airtime in which to tell you about it, Ferguson has been riding the airwaves in some capacity or another since the ripe young age of 13, when right-wing radio host Ken Hamblin gave the kid a weekly call-in slot on his Denver-based program and made him one of the country’s best heard young voices. It’s now nine years later, and Ferguson has his own guests, not to mention his own show. Impressive kid, but who is he?
A proud product of home schooling, Ferguson is a charmingly parochial 20-something who attributes his success to time spent in Mom’s minivan. “[W]hile other kids were stuck in boring classrooms, staring at the walls or ripping apart their paper, piece by piece,” Ferguson was firmly planted in the passenger’s seat, listening to Limbaugh in the family Windstar. Ferguson is, further, deeply religious, disgusted by popular culture, in favor of family, in favor of school prayer, and would generally do a great job at dinner with your grandparents (unless they’re America-hating commies).
The funny thing is, Ferguson’s background isn’t unique. In the rarified world of young conservative punditry, it’s no less than archetypal. Joining him in prodigy-hood is Kyle Williams, a home-schooled, deeply religious 14-year-old columnist/author with a stunning mastery of conservative talking points and an unending storehouse of cultural disgust, and Ben Shapiro, a home-schooled orthodox Jew who found UCLA so packed with hardship and adversity that he wrote a column on it for the school paper, a syndicated column on it for conservative papers, and the just-published Brainwashed, a book on all the lefty academicians trying to trick students into tattooing Mao onto their buttocks.
A quick round on Nexis shows that these three boast numerous appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, which, for two writers and a radio broadcaster, marks the multimedia ubiquity that transforms a political savant into a true pundit. And they, just like your retired generals and legal consultants, are called in when their expertise is applicable. From reading the transcripts, typical subjects are being young (Ben, Ben and Kyle), being really young (Kyle), being offended by popular culture (Ben, Ben, and Kyle), being offended by college (Ben S.), being offended by liberals (Ben, Ben and Kyle) and why liberals offend other people their age, too (Ben, Ben, and Kyle).
But having these three represent their generation is like learning about international diplomacy from Don Rumsfeld; the gurus know not of what they speak. The young folk the conservative message machine trots out to speak for Generation Y are not exactly representative members. In 2003, 2.2% of students were home-schooled. Religion, though judged important by 34% of high-schoolers, has less to do with piety for them and more to do with youth groups (read: snowboarding and roller-hockey weekends). As Dale Buss wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “The hard numbers say … that, while they may profess the faith and indeed love Jesus, the vast majority of Christian teenagers in this country actually hold beliefs fundamentally antithetical to the creed.” And the demographic driving Jay-Z and Ashlee Simpson (and downloading, watching, and re-watching Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”) lacks the monstrous disdain Ben, Ben and Kyle hold for pop culture.
So why are these the personalities trotted out whenever the conversation turns youthful? And how did these three get the permanent slots, while they face off against an ever-rotating cast of young lefties, culled from wherever a desperate producer can find them? (I was once invited on to CNN/FN to talk about the youth vote. The invitation came in a frantic e-mail the morning of the show; the car, dispatched as soon as I responded to the e-mail, arrived 10 minutes before the segment, and I breathlessly entered the argument just as it ended.) It’s possible, I guess, that they are true prodigies whose remarkable talents have earned them premature success. But doesn’t it seem just a wee bit unlikely that all three members of this successful trio would be conservative, home-schooled, deeply religious and disdainful of pop culture? In fact, the repetition of this rare combination of traits suggests that they, in fact, are the reasons for the unlikely prominence of Ben, Ben and Kyle.
These are dream children—living, breathing, maybe even guitar-playing rebuttals to the hostile relationship Republicans are reputed to have with the young. They fit a detailed mold and can be trotted out to cover the conservative flank each time jihad is declared on rap music or Maxim or SpongeBob SquarePants. When it’s old white guys rationalizing the cultural broadsides, they just seem out-of-touch and paternalistic. But if Ben Shapiro is out there, if rap’s target demographic is brandishing a pitchfork and joining the mob, then it’ll throw enough confusion into the argument that the helpless liberal will be lost trying to figure out who he’s fighting for.
In fact, Ben, Ben, and Kyle fit a distinct pattern in conservative media representation. Indeed, leveraging one’s demographic birthright to help the conservative cause is a rich and respected tactic for getting noticed by the Republican Noise Machine. Take Michelle Malkin (please!), an Asian woman who wrote a book defending the internment of other Asian-Americans during World War II and now frequents Fox News demanding a sensible assessment of whether Arabs should undergo similar treatment for the duration of the War on Terror. That Asian internment was warranted isn’t exactly a majority viewpoint, but never mind. Take Ward Connerly, a black pundit who springs forth with jack-in-the-box regularity each time the right trains its guns on affirmative action. And while we’re doing Ward, we can’t forget his partner-in-crime Linda Chavez, a Latina whose primary interest appears to be, yes, assaulting affirmative action. Take Phyllis Schlafly, the woman who led the effort to kill the Equal Rights Amendment, a little constitutional edit that, if ratified, would’ve enshrined gender equality as the immutable law of the land.
In a party that captures a minority of woman, African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics, it’s statistically stunning for these racially (or, in Schlafly’s case, sexually) charged issues to all find their conservative fulcrums in a member of the affected group. But it’s also good politics.
Color-coding your defenders saves a lot of trouble, as the charges of discrimination that might sink a racially charged proposal fall flat when the initiative’s defender has the correct skin tone. It stands to reason that the proposal can’t be too bad for the affected group, or why would that person be on TV defending it? Similarly, no woman, presumably, would defend something that’s bad for her gender, and no young person would fight for what most of his generation opposes. And yet the ranks of conservative pundits swell with advocates whose primary purpose seems to be using their demographic birthright to defuse criticism of offensive policies. So don’t fault Ben, Ben, and Kyle for their odd upbringings and unlikely prominence – their rare combination of youthful looks and throwback sensibilities are the precise attributes that allow them to advocate and oppose where older, stodgier Republicans dare not tread, just like Linda, Ward, and Michelle use their race to go where white Republicans cannot. As a friend of mine once noted, if these folks didn’t exist, Republicans would have to invent them.