You can’t help but admire Rush Limbaugh’s talent for publicity. His radio talk show is probably—reliable figures only go back to 1991—in its third decade as the number-one rated radio show in the country. And here he is in the news again, trading verbal punches with the president of the United States.
Limbaugh remarked on Jan. 16 that to the degree that Obama’s program is one of state socialism, he hopes it will fail. (If only he had said the same about George W. Bush.) The president riposted at a session with congressional leaders a week later, telling them, “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.” Outsiders weighed in: Limbaugh should not have wished failure on a president trying to cope with a national crisis; Obama should not have stooped to insult a mere media artiste, the kind of task traditionally delegated to presidential subordinates while the chief stands loftily mute. Citizens picked sides and sat back to enjoy the circus.
For Limbaugh to remain a player at this level after 20-odd years bespeaks powers far beyond the ordinary. Most conservatives—even those who do not listen to his show—regard him as a good thing. His 14 million listeners are a key component of the conservative base. When he first emerged nationally, soon after the FCC dropped the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, conservatives for the first time in decades had something worth listening to on their radios other than country music and bland news programs read off the AP wire. In the early Clinton years, when Republicans were regrouping, Limbaugh was perhaps the most prominent conservative in the United States. National Review ran a cover story on him as “The Leader of the Opposition.”
Limbaugh has a similarly high opinion of himself: “I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement,” he told the New York Times. This doesn’t sit well with all conservatives. Fred Barnes grumbled, “When the GOP rose in the late 1970s, it had Ronald Reagan. Now the loudest Republican voice belongs to Rush Limbaugh.” Upon discovering that Limbaugh had anointed himself the successor to William F. Buckley Jr., WFB’s son Christopher retorted, “Rush, I knew William F. Buckley, Jr. William F. Buckley, Jr. was a father of mine. Rush, you’re no William F. Buckley, Jr.”
The more po-faced conservative intellectuals have long winced at Limbaugh’s quips, parodies, slogans, and impatience with the starched-collar respectability of the official Right. American conservatism had been a pretty staid and erudite affair pre-Limbaugh, occasional lapses into jollification on “Firing Line” being the main public expression of conservatism’s lighter side.
Now the airwaves are full of conservative chat. Talkers magazine’s list of the top ten radio talk shows by number of weekly listeners also features Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, and Mark Levin. Agony aunt Laura Schlessinger and financial adviser Dave Ramsey are both in the top ten too, though their conservatism is more incidental to the content of their shows.
Liberal attempts to duplicate the successes of Limbaugh and his imitators have fallen flat. Alan Colmes’s late-evening radio show can be heard in most cities, and Air America is still alive somewhere—the Aleutians, perhaps—but colorful, populist, political talk radio seems to be a thing that liberals can’t do.
There are many reasons to be grateful for conservative talk radio, and with a left-Democrat president and a Democratic Congress, there are good reasons to fear for its survival. Reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine is generally perceived as the major threat, but may not in fact be necessary. Obama is known to have strong feelings about “localism,” the FCC rule that requires radio and TV stations to serve the interests of their local communities as a condition of keeping their broadcast licenses. “Local community” invariably turns out in practice to mean leftist agitator and race-guilt shakedown organizations—the kind of environment in which Obama learned his practical politics. Localism will likely be the key to unlock the door through which conservative talk radio will be expelled with a presidential boot in the rear.
With reasons for gratitude duly noted, are there some downsides to conservative talk radio? Taking the conservative project as a whole—limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad—has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Savages, and Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?
They surely did. At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to “build democracy” in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a “massive success,” and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy “phenomenal.”
Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises. Thus a liberal like E.J. Dionne can write, “The cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet and William F. Buckley Jr. is now in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. … Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda, ideas by slogans.” Talk radio has contributed mightily to this development.
It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. “Revolt against the masses?” asked Jeffrey Hart. “Limbaugh is the masses.”
In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.
There is a lowbrow liberalism, too, but the Left hasn’t learned how to market it. Consider again the failure of liberals at the talk-radio format, with the bankruptcy of Air America always put forward as an example. Yet in fact liberals are very successful at talk radio. They are just no good at the lowbrow sort. The “Rush Limbaugh Show” may be first in those current Talkers magazine rankings, but second and third are National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” with 13 million weekly listeners each. It is easy to mock the studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism of NPR, but these are very successful radio programs.
Liberals are getting rather good at talk TV, too. The key to this medium, they have discovered, is irony. I don’t take this political stuff seriously, I assure you, but really, these damn fool Republicans… Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert offer different styles of irony, but none leaves any shadow of doubt where his political sympathies lie. Liberals have done well to master this trick, but it depends too much on facial expressions and body language—the double-take, the arched eyebrow, the knowing smirk—to transfer to radio. It is, in any case, not quite populism, the target audience being mainly the ironic cohort—college-educated Stuff White People Like types.
If liberals can’t do populism, the converse is also true: conservatives are not much good at gentility. We don’t do affectless voices, it seems. There are genteel conservative events—I’ve been to about a million of them and have the NoDoz pharmacy receipts to prove it—but they preach to the converted. If anything, they reinforce the ghettoization of conservatism, of which talk radio’s echo chamber is the major symptom. We don’t know how to speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly—indeed, conservatively—wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions. This untapped constituency might be receptive to interesting radio programs with a conservative slant.
Even better than NPR as a listening experience is the BBC’s Radio 4. One of the few things I used to look forward to on my occasional visits to the mother country was Radio 4, which almost always had something interesting to say on the 90-minute drive from Heathrow to my hometown. One current feature is “America, Empire of Liberty,” a thumbnail history of the U.S. for British listeners. The show’s viewpoint is entirely conventional but pitched just right for a middlebrow radio audience. Why can’t conservatives do radio like that? Instead we have crude cheerleading for world-saving Wilsonianism, social utopianism, and a cloth-eared, moon-booted Republican administration.
You might object that the Right didn’t need talk radio to ruin it; it was quite capable of ruining itself. At sea for a uniting cause once the Soviet Union had fallen, buffaloed by master gamers in Congress, outfoxed by Bill Clinton, then seduced by the vapid “compassionate conservatism” of Rove and Bush, the post-Cold War Right cheerfully dug its own grave. And there was some valiant resistance from conservative talk radio to Bush’s crazier initiatives, like “comprehensive immigration reform” and the Medicare prescription-drug extravaganza.
But there was not much confrontation with other deep social and economic problems. The unholy marriage of social engineering and high finance that ended with our present ruin was left largely unanalyzed from reluctance to slight a Republican administration. Plenty of people saw what was coming. There was Ron Paul, for example: “Our present course … is not sustainable. … Our spendthrift ways are going to come to an end one way or another. Politicians won’t even mention the issue, much less face up to it.”
Neither will the GOP pep squad of conservative talk radio. And Ron Paul, you know, has a cousin whose best friend’s daughter was once dog-walker for a member of the John Birch Society. So much for him!
Why engage an opponent when an epithet is in easy reach? Some are crude: rather than debating Jimmy Carter’s views on Mideast peace, Michael Savage dismisses him as a “war criminal.” Others are juvenile: Mark Levin blasts the Washington Compost and New York Slimes.
But for all the bullying bluster of conservative talk-show hosts, their essential attitude is one of apology and submission—the dreary old conservative cringe. Their underlying metaphysic is the same as the liberals’: infinite human potential—Yes, we can!—if only we get society right. To the Left, getting society right involves shoveling us around like truckloads of concrete; to the Right, it means banging on about responsibility, God, and tax cuts while deficits balloon, Congress extrudes yet another social-engineering fiasco, and our armies guard the Fulda Gap. That human beings have limitations and that wise social policy ought to accept the fact—some problems insoluble, some Children Left Behind—is as unsayable on “Hannity” as it is on “All Things Considered.”
I enjoy these radio bloviators (and their TV equivalents) and hope they can survive the coming assault from Left triumphalists. If conservatism is to have a future, though, it will need to listen to more than the looped tape of lowbrow talk radio. We could even tackle the matter of tone, bringing a sportsman’s respect for his opponents to the debate.
I repeat: There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. Ideas must be marketed, and right-wing talk radio captures a big and useful market segment. However, if there is no thoughtful, rigorous presentation of conservative ideas, then conservatism by default becomes the raucous parochialism of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, and company. That loses us a market segment at least as useful, if perhaps not as big.
Conservatives have never had, and never should have, a problem with elitism. Why have we allowed carny barkers to run away with the Right?
John Derbyshire is a contributing editor of National Review and the author of, most recently, Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra.