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Tucker Carlson and the Decline of Conservative Speak

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Writing in the Times, Alessandra Stanley doesn't think much of Tucker Carlson's new chat show on MSNBC, "The Situation with Tucker Carlson."

She says it's shallow, superficial, sarcastic, and makes Carlson look dumb. (In fact, he's not dumb at all.) The article is called "Talk Show Washout Tries Again," which is a pretty harsh thing to read about oneself in the New York Times.

"He is surprisingly churlish," Stanley writes. "He interviewed Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain, on whether military women should be allowed to work in combat zones and slapped down her reasoned arguments with schoolyard sarcasm, dismissing her position as, 'Mutilation is a woman's right.'"

Two points about this.

I barely know Carlson, but I'm not surprised by the churlish part, judging from my one real encounter with him. It was a few years ago, when I was the executive editor at George. Carlson had written a piece for us, I don't remember what about. (My predecessor had assigned it.) But for some reason, the subject of George came up on "Crossfire", and Carlson just trashed the magazine, saying how terrible it was, how lightweight.

A couple days later, after the show had been recorded in Nexis, I picked up the phone and called Carlson. I said something like, Tucker, why'd you say such harsh things about George? You seemed happy enough to cash our check.

Carlson claimed that he hadn't said anything bad about the magazine.

I mentioned that I had the show transcript in front of me.

He hemmed and hawed and backpedaled like mad, and said that sometimes on TV you say things you don't mean.

Well, sure. I've been on TV enough to know the pressure you feel to say things that are more extreme and less nuanced than your real beliefs. Still, I found the whole episode pretty unimpressive.

Here's the larger point: Carlson's style of interrogation—the smarminess, the easy put-down, the sneer, the sarcasm, the glibness, the eye-rolling, the massive distortion of whatever the person sitting across from you says—typifies the predominant vernacular of American conservatives in the last ten or twenty years. Like that line, "mutilation is a woman's right"—you just want to groan and say, Tucker, why so obnoxious? The woman's just trying to make a point.

I wonder if this macho, winner-take-all paradigm isn't finally wearing out its welcome.

It's never been particularly healthy, of course. Listening to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter is like eating at McDonald's; it can taste good in the act, but afterward, you think, Why did I just do that? Yuch.

But more important, it seems ill-suited to a time of real seriousness in American history. It's more about scoring cheap debating points than about finding common ground or resolving difficult problems, and it's certainly not about actually listening to people who hold differing opinions.

During the Clinton administration, that approach transformed a stupid sexual peccadillo into a constitutional crisis.

Now there's a war on—a war started by conservatives—and their debating style just seems tinny, defensive, anxious, and increasingly irrelevant. When it comes to political dialogue, conservatives may have won a lot of battles, but the country is losing the war.