Conservative columnist David Brooks has an interesting take n The New York Times on the influence of Rush Limbaugh and kindred right-wing crusaders in punditry. He argues that these shrill figures are essentially all bark and no bite, being unable to get the people they claim to represent onto the street or into the ballot booth.
[N]o matter how often their hollowness is exposed, the jocks still reweave the myth of their own power. They still ride the airwaves claiming to speak for millions. They still confuse listeners with voters. And they are aided in this endeavor by their enablers. They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.
So the myth returns. Just months after the election and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don’t exist.
They pay more attention to Rush’s imaginary millions than to the real voters down the street. The Republican Party is unpopular because it’s more interested in pleasing Rush’s ghosts than actual people. The party is leaderless right now because nobody has the guts to step outside the rigid parameters enforced by the radio jocks and create a new party identity. The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer’s niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician’s coalition-building strategy.
The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.
I don't think these characters are as out of sync with the GOP as Brooks assumes. If only.
They may have been midwives to a terrible new era of shrill, dumbed-down political debate, but they're not the ones who knocked the GOP up in the first place. I think part of their success stems from their skillful tapping into long-standing (and until recently unchallenged) reactionary trends within the party. I think many of the seeds of this ugliness were planted during the Reagan era, which ratcheted up the culture wars more than a bit.