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How Radio Wrecks the Right (Don't barf, it's by John Derbyshire!)
The American Conservative ^ | February 23, 2009 | John Derbyshire

Posted on 03/04/2009 6:39:43 AM PST by seatrout

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.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; News/Current Events; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: conservatism; derbyshire; ideology; limbaugh; radio; rinopurge; rush; rushlimbaugh; talk; talkradio; vichyrepublicans; waronrush
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To: KeyLargo

41 posted on 03/04/2009 7:57:33 AM PST by Old Professer (The critic writes with rapier pen, dips it twice, then writes again.)
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To: seatrout

42 posted on 03/04/2009 7:59:28 AM PST by Liberty Valance (Keep a simple manner for a happy life)
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To: Hacklehead

“Before limbaugh the media at least tried to cover their biases”

Now that is a funny statement!

43 posted on 03/04/2009 7:59:34 AM PST by stockpirate (A people unwilling to use violent force to preserve liberty deserve the tyrants that rule them. SP-0)
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To: brytlea
I see my non-clarity!

Let me detail my thoughts.

it's (the GOP is) going to have to be (primarily) blue collar folks (who are) unpolluted by universities and "erudition."

I did NOT mean:

it's (the GOP is) going to have to be (exclusively) blue collar folks, (and the GOP will need to be) unpolluted by universities and "erudition."

However, having extracted an advanced degree myself from a University in spite of the "intellectual pollution" surrounding those places, I can assure you that I -do- admire intelligent blue collar folks who did not choose that path. They are many, and they tend in my mind to be the most representative of the classical individualist American of the past, better gorunded in basic principles, and altogether more pleasant people to be around.

I see Universities like Hospitals. Central points of contact which perform some of the highest, most advanced functions of modern civilization...but also....a place which draws the best minds but also certain sick people, and perfectly healthy people can contract deadly infections in the normal course of business!!!!

44 posted on 03/04/2009 7:59:44 AM PST by sam_paine (X .................................)
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To: seatrout

Careful, I’ll rout your seat, and fillet your trout.

45 posted on 03/04/2009 8:01:18 AM PST by Old Professer (The critic writes with rapier pen, dips it twice, then writes again.)
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To: sam_paine
Precisely, the right’s “intellectuals” proved in the last election that when the going gets for the Harvard Grad.

They preferred an anti-American racist to what they saw as white Palin, Joe the Plumber, and their blue collar audiences.

NPR’s right and leftwing “intellectual” bigots cannot be trusted.

I would trust the instincts, guts, moxie, and judgment of their “underlings” anyday.

46 posted on 03/04/2009 8:01:30 AM PST by roses of sharon (Pray Hussein fails!)
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To: conservativemusician; brytlea
Perhaps you mean a conservative majority is going to have to INCLUDE blue collar folks

Yes. Bryt was on to it and I tried to clarify in #44.

However, I'd say it's going to be increasingly blue collar and less and less white WFB and Golbergian! The college educated right is dwindling.

47 posted on 03/04/2009 8:02:37 AM PST by sam_paine (X .................................)
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To: Psycho_Bunny
That's not a valid point. Those shows would never have made it had they not been subsidized across the nation. They owe their all of their success to having operated at a loss, covered by you and me, until they became accepted as the "norm".

What you're really saying is that "commercial success" is the only success that matters. Well, that's one point of view, I suppose -- but it's clearly not the only one, nor is it even important when one is talking about political influence. Derbyshire's point is that, as an intellectual component of propagating a political point of view, NPR's offerings are much more effective than those of conservative talk radio.

The FACT is that the two NPR shows have audience numbers comparable to Limbaugh's -- which for radio is "success" in the most meaningful sense. I would also suggest to you that the NPR shows are simply better than Limbaugh's or Hannity's. They have better content, a much broader range of topics, discussion, and points of view, and much greater depth.

If you've ever sat through the excruciating pain of listening to Hannity attempt to debate an intelligent liberal, you'll understand the qualitative difference between conservative talk radio and the NPR offerings. I'll give sean credit for trying, though. Limbaugh never even has guests -- who, after all, would just get in the way of his own opinions.

Given that we're talking about political influence here, your focus on commercial success

48 posted on 03/04/2009 8:03:00 AM PST by r9etb
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To: backwoods-engineer
Rush Limbaugh IS the leader of the Conservative movement.

If that's true, we're screwed.

49 posted on 03/04/2009 8:05:56 AM PST by r9etb
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To: seatrout

Great article making a very cogent point. I know a number of people that live very conservative lives, go to church regularly, pay their bills, normally vote Republican, are solid members of the community and can’t stand the ranting of the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world. I listened to many of the speeches at CPAC and I can tell you Limbaugh’s was one of the most light weight of the group. Limbaugh and many of his imitators sell a very limited, simplistic, low rent version of conservatism. One where you don’t have to think just believe and agree. Pick up your pitchfork and torch and storm the castle. I understand that He has his place in the entertainment end of the conservative spectrum much like a Bill Maher on the liberal side. However, it would be wonderful to actually have some enlightened conservative discussion on TV or radio once and awhile. A conversation amongst thoughtful people who would lay out the conservative message and how it can best address the problems facing the country in an in-depth intellectual way.

Personally I have a hard time taking a multi-millionare talking head who lives in a gated community and flies around in a private jet seriously when he rants about issues like unemployment, foreclosures and everyday pocketbook issues. Actually after listening to Limbaugh since 1990 I can tell you that in the last few years the quality of his show has devolved immensely as has the intelligence of his callers as a whole. Whether he understand it or not I have come to believe that he has become a great tool of the Left.

Flame away.

50 posted on 03/04/2009 8:14:42 AM PST by redangus
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To: seatrout

Well, nothing can live by radio-talk alone. Look at how well liberalism has done in talk radio. How many times has Air America tanked into the ground? It was so unstable liberal radio talk show host Al Franken decided to seek a more stable government job.

You have to first believe in conservative principles, and then, live them.

Second you have to stop listening to liberals and the media and liberal politicians when they say you must compromise your beliefs. They never do. They always get something that inches forward on of their goals.

Conservatives have to learn that to liberals, ‘compromise’ is: conservatives having to leave their principles and core beliefs and give up things to the liberals. The libs will give up token small things that were decoys in the first place, or things they will wind up going for the NEXT time.

The libs understand incrementalism and getting to the final goal in small steps. They are masters at it and the media gives them a backstop because it’sall about ongoing ‘progress’ and the stupid GOP/RINOs that go along with it are the ‘enlightened’ ones.

51 posted on 03/04/2009 8:15:32 AM PST by Secret Agent Man (I'd like to tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.)
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To: Psycho_Bunny

Limbaugh 14M listeners outlandishly successful, NPR 13M listeners an abject failure. Yeh that’s the ticket.

52 posted on 03/04/2009 8:16:21 AM PST by redangus
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To: r9etb

The comparison of audience size is misleading. Rush reaches 14 mil DAILY. Whereas NPR’s shows are WEEKLY.

Hannity never claims to be an intellectual.

Besides, the conservative message has to be in plain english. If you are going to win national elections, the average american MUST understand your positions and what you represent.

Buckley was a great conservative thinker and writer, but the average joe needed a dictionary to understand what he was saying. “Highbrow” conservative discourse and hyper-intellectual conservative theory goes right over the head of the people who spend most of their time working their asses off to pay the bills and take care of their kids.

Conservatives need to influence the working american. Not just the intellectual.

53 posted on 03/04/2009 8:20:45 AM PST by conservativemusician (Arm yourself.)
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To: roses of sharon

“Wow, now Rush is responsible for the 40 year MSM campaign against Republicans?”

In my experience the media has always leaned somewhat left, however it has moved dramatically left in the last 20 years. Perhaps it is only a coincidence, perhaps not.

54 posted on 03/04/2009 8:21:05 AM PST by Hacklehead (Liberalism is the art of taking what works, breaking it, and then blaming conservatives.)
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To: sam_paine

Got ya.

55 posted on 03/04/2009 8:21:25 AM PST by conservativemusician (Arm yourself.)
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To: seatrout

This is one disastrous abortion of an opinion piece. NPR and BBC vs. Rush and Hannity? Guess it’s time to break out the crayons and coloring book to draw this fool a picture of why he’s so clueless...

56 posted on 03/04/2009 8:24:47 AM PST by Future Snake Eater ("Get out of the boat and walk on the water with us!”--Sen. Joe Biden)
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To: brytlea

You might be surprised by how many of Rush’s listener would agree with that statement. That is one of the problems with talk radio. It lowers the discussion to a simplistic, sloganeering level where intellectual discussion is looked on as elitist. The problem with that is that conservatism will never compete well with liberalism in the world of sound bites. Conservatism is about ideas and thinking unlike liberalism which lives on emotions. Rush sells emotion to the hard core conservative masses looking for a leader, but in doing so turns off the moderately conservative majority who could be swayed by the intelligent debate that is sorely lacking.

57 posted on 03/04/2009 8:28:30 AM PST by redangus
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To: r9etb

“Today’s GOP is pretty much rudderless — they’ve been mooching for the past 20+ years off the intellectual foundations laid in the ‘60s and ‘70s by the likes of Mr. Buckley and Mr. Reagan. “

Reagan showed the Repubs how to win and to defeat the left. Rather than learn from him, Bush 1 rejected those policies and the repubs have never looked back. They choose not to learn from the most successful repub presidency since Lincoln. Its gross stupidy or incompetence.

58 posted on 03/04/2009 8:29:11 AM PST by Hacklehead (Liberalism is the art of taking what works, breaking it, and then blaming conservatives.)
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To: conservativemusician
Whereas NPR’s shows are WEEKLY.

Not true. They're both daily shows -- played during morning and evening commutes. As a result they actually have far better audience access than Limbaugh does.

Hannity never claims to be an intellectual.

Agreed -- which is why we don't want him trying to build intellectual foundations for conservatism.

Besides, the conservative message has to be in plain english. If you are going to win national elections, the average american MUST understand your positions and what you represent.

Yeah -- it has to be more than noise and bluster and GOP cheerleading, too. Unfortunately, that's what conservative talk radio tends to do; it certainly doesn't provide the intellectual depth necessary to foster real understanding. Conservative talk radio depends primarily on an essentially emotional appeal.

Buckley was a great conservative thinker and writer, but the average joe needed a dictionary to understand what he was saying. “Highbrow” conservative discourse....

As Mr. Derbyshire conceded. His point is that NPR is quite ably serving the "Middlebrow" liberal audience; whereas conservative talk radio is essentially "lowbrow." We have no comparable "Middlebrow" offerings -- which is where the conservative message really needs to be spread, if we want to have broad intellectual support.

59 posted on 03/04/2009 8:29:32 AM PST by r9etb
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To: Hacklehead
Bush 1 rejected those policies and the repubs have never looked back

I think it's actually more serious than that. If it were simply a matter of rejecting policies, the GOP wouldn't be where it is today. Bush 1 rejected (and I think never really understood) the intellectual underpinnings on which those policies were based.

That's the only explanation for his puzzlingly issue-less non-candidacy in 1992; not to mention that quick and suicidal reversal, on his only unambiguous promise ("no new taxes!") -- with no compensating concessions on the part of the Democrats.

60 posted on 03/04/2009 8:34:54 AM PST by r9etb
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