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Why it's so sad when conservatives try to play the underdog
Pundits and billionaires on the right have appropriated the language of social oppression. It's not a good fit.
 
An artistic rendition of a Koch brother struggling under the jackboot of a tree-hugger.
An artistic rendition of a Koch brother struggling under the jackboot of a tree-hugger. (Thinkstock)

Jeffrey Toobin once described the career of John Roberts, the conservative chief justice of the Supreme Court, this way: "In every major case since he became the nation's 17th chief justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff."

This is a raw expression of one of the most basic forms of conservatism: The defense of incumbent holders of wealth and power. Of course, it doesn't account for the whole of American conservatism, but it's no secret that conservatives are the most outspoken defenders of the 1 percent, from the Wall Street Journal editorial board to the vast bulk of the Republican contingent in Congress.

The rise of the social justice movement has thus presented a persistent rhetorical problem for conservatives. Members of this movement have made a compelling case that the powerful have rigged society against certain groups: minorities, women, the poor, transgender folks, and so on. That rhetorical strength has been a great source of temptation for conservatives, who would strongly like to cast themselves as heroic underdogs fighting against a vile and oppressive regime.

We saw this tendency at work this week, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was on CNN's defibrillated new version of Crossfire. Nye kept emphasizing that conservatives are simply unwilling to accept the scientific conclusions on climate change, which predict highly alarming consequences if we stay on our current emissions path. In response, host S.E. Cupp accused him of trying to "bully...anyone who dares question" the science.

Take a look:

Similarly, George Will, the conservative columnist at The Washington Post, recently used conservative conspiracy theories to assert that climate scientists have "interests" that have biased their analysis. "If you want money from the biggest source of direct research in this country, the federal government, don't question its orthodoxy," he continued.

Set aside the fact that these conservatives conveniently accept the logic of social justice only when it suits them. The real problem with this kind of analysis is that it makes no sense if you think about it for even five seconds. They have the power imbalance completely backward. Carbon-mining companies are, in fact, among the most profitable industries that have ever existed. Climate scientists have, in fact, been legally and personally harassed by denier vigilantes and their pet hack journalists.

Wouldn't the incomprehensibly huge piles of money the oil industry spends on political organizing count as some kind of interest that influences society? Not to George Will, which is why he doesn't provide any evidence whatsoever that there is an actual conspiracy. There is none, because it doesn't exist. It's derp all the way down.

And thus we see the problem with Cupp's analysis as well. Accusations of bullying only make sense if there is an insanely wealthy cabal of climate scientists oppressing someone unjustly. But Nye is simply correct in his description of almost total unanimity on questions of climate change. In particular, he's right to say that more global warming means more extreme weather, the fact of which conservatives are constantly trying to fudge.

Cupp isn't being bullied; she's wrong on the facts, and appropriating social justice rhetoric in the most ham-fisted way to put that position out of reach of criticism.

It's ludicrous, and people shouldn't stand for it. But more than that, it's just kind of sad. Just consider the bizarre spectacle of billionaire Charles Koch, who has whined piteously about a bunch of powerless leftists calling him names. You would think conservatives would be more comfortable being on the side with all the power and money, instead of trying to be something they're not.

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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