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Posted by on Feb 26, 2009 in Arts & Entertainment, Media, Politics | 17 comments

Is Conservative Talk Radio Wrecking The Right?

Is conservative talk radio wrecking the right?

We’ve asked that question many times before here, but now the question comes from a must read article in The American Conservative that expands upon some of the questions and points we’ve made here over the past few years. These are questions about how conservative talk radio — once a useful device for a seemingly discouraged Republican party — has now apparently become a major motor of policy for the Republican party — a classic “tail is wagging the dog” situation. And if a tail wagged a dog, you can imagine how the dog could get bruised. It is also becoming the paramount image of the GOP and of conservatism.

John Derbyshire, writing in The American conservative in an article titled “How Radio Wrecks the Right..Limbaugh and company certainly entertain. But a steady diet of ideological comfort food is no substitute for hearty intellectual fare,” thinks the image of conservatives has been bruised and needs to get they need to get own tail-wagging capability back. Some highlights from his piece which needs to be read in full:

For [Rush] 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…

He gives Limbaugh full credit: Limbaugh jazzed up a staid right that was most typified until he burst on the scene by the cerebral, stimulating but not in-your-face entertaining (this was, after all the late 20th century) “Firing Line.” He notes how liberal talk radio has not succeeded. (I’ve frequently written here that in my long car rides across the country I would need a private detective to find progressive talk in most major and even un-major radio markets).

And then he gets to the core question of whether conservative talk has helped or hurt the right — and whether the fairness doctrine’s revival is a real threat:

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.”

Indeed, Once upon a time people who differed with the GOP could furiously differ with it over policies and ideas. Liberals and even some independent voters considered conservatives stubborn — a lot less prone to alter key values and tenets to gain votes. “He’d rather be right than be President.” But Limbaugh and Hannity have wiped away this image. On some days they wounded more like defense lawyers than talk show hosts. And worse: if you’re not a member of the choir you know the song that will be sung before you even tune in.

Just talk to a high school or college student who is NOT a member of the Democratic party or Republican party and get his/her reaction to hearing a typical conservative talk show that sounds like three hours of rip and read RNC emails while raging against anyone with a “D” in front of their party affiliation. Most young people listening to sputtering and name-calling partisans on the air consider them lame — and many of these young people are conservatives or liberals. Progressive talk flopped because it adapted the Limbaugh/Hannity model or tried to be the anti-Limbaugh anti-Hannity (and forgot about a little thing called broadcasting TALENT, which Limbaugh has). Why listen to a progressive talk show that sounds as if IT is doing rip and read from the DNC? (NOTE: There are conservative and Democratic exceptions to this rule).

But the Demmies radio shows have simply not found a commercial niche, even though this is often blamed on stations being owned by conservatives. If the PRODUCT is not good, it won’t sell. (A program manager of a mid-west station that runs conservative talk and looked into progressive talk told me this summer with a sigh:”I just don’t know what it is about progressive talk. The market just doesn’t seem to be there for it. It’s weird.”)

But conservative talk as a product sells. And its influence has spread to within the policy making elites’ decisions on party strategy. Meanwhile, it has had a measurable negative impact on conservatism: it has led to the emergence…and critics would say the dominance…of a new form of what Derbyshire calls “lowbrow conservatism:”

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.


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.

His final graphs:

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?

This piece has to be read completely for several reasons. (1) It shows that there are voices in the GOP waiting to get a louder microphone who want to engage on ideas and policies rather than lash out at those who seek, advocate, write about or support policies with which they don’t agree. (2) It’s one more sign that in the post-Bush era — even with Karl Rove doing quite well as a Fox political commentator — some Republicans want to move beyond the old leadership, and the old style. (3) It indicates that the kind of thought-based conservatism that led JFK dream of criss-crossing the country and traveling with and debating conservative icon Barry Goldwater before the President’s assassination is still very much alive.

The question is whether conservative talk radio will continue to grow as a dominant high profile voice of Republicans — one that decidedly turns off many independent, moderate, centrist, conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans, and young people who are not “damaged goods” baby boomers (like me) and makes them think this is what the Republican party is and stands for — or whether it can go back to being one tool in the GOPs’ get-out-vote arsenal.

And can the non-RNC talking points conservatives gain a higher profile in the (decaying) old media, new media and cable as America moves with the Democratic party as the majority party into the 21st century?

The bottom line good news: there are thoughtful conservative voices out there — but many of them don’t have a powerful microphone.