Rush Limbaugh, king-maker or paper tiger?

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.

Op-Ed Columnist – The Wizard of Beck –

[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.

  • TM Lutas

    Neither kingmaker nor paper tiger caricature is true. The talk show figures are connectors and refiners. They connect people, letting them know that they are not alone in a culture where so many try to convince the general public that conservatism is not in the mainstream and may be criminal or insane.
    They are also refiners in that they improve the quality of debate on the right. Yes, a number of them are screamers but they are high grade screamers or they do not tend to last long. Refinement comes in the form of exposing their listeners to people like Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, William F Buckley, who often were shut out of other outlets. It also comes in the form of live calls that perhaps 1 time in 20 gets a host to actually think and improve their own position on air in real time. That is an exciting possibility for a housewife or a truck driver and stimulates their own efforts to bring up a good enough point to get past the call screener. “I gave Rush Limbaugh something to think about” is a conversational coup that is hard to equal in some circles.
    Viewed as connecters and refiners, the talk hosts are more correctly viewed as the important but not all powerful figures that they really are. They cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear. They cannot anoint someone and have a mindless army who deliver their votes and contributions without any critical thought. But they can raise up the worthy obscure past the liberal black list and they can help organize genuinely popular insurrections in a quick and efficient manner.

  • svend

    An interesting take. I certainly wouldn’t expect you to share the alarmist view that prevails on much of the Left, of course, but your reading still strikes me as overly generous and sanguine.
    Sure, when Rush arrived on the scene nationally I think you could say that he and the 1st generation of imitators/successors were broadening the MSM debate (ideologically if, depending on one’s view, not intellectually), but now they’re extremely prominent, influencing (if not dragging down) the whole media in a variety of ways.
    Their political positions may coincide on many hot button issues with Sowell et al, but I really doubt they’re contributing to a political culture where ideas count for much. To me, their most significant contribution seems this awful gladiatorial, anti-intellectual, pseudo-populist shtick that has infected most of the MSM and reduced debate to trash-talking sound bytes. They’re not single-handedly responsible, but I think they’ve played a sinister role.
    Outside of campuses, I don’t think one can speak of a “liberal blacklist” that’s holding conservatives down in terms of media access. There is inevitably a tug of war at times, but on the big issues I think it is far more often that conservative talking points get reinforced, even if only implicitly.
    Speaking of Sowell, I realize he is a very profound social thinker and philospher (and intend to read more of him eventually) and I realize we all have our blind spots, but I’m afraid when it comes to Islam and Muslims, he’s little better than these jokers. I say that not because he challenges my view of things, but because he’s equally shrill and despite his eloquence and scholarly manner not much more nuanced, in my opinion.

  • TM Lutas

    There very much is a hollywood blacklist against conservatives. Go try and be a religiously conservative mormon social worker. Try being a public conservative in NY theater. Or perhaps a conservative painter (art, not house).
    The blacklisting of conservatives in certain segments of society has long become normalized. One has to work hard to imagine a world where the arts are depoliticized in the US.
    I think the start of the slide was the absolute null effect of philosophical takedowns and decades of practical experience of the failure of communism. The creation of the idea of revolutionary logic where any and all objections could be safely dismissed as bourgeois and therefore illegitimate has led to a bifurcated intellectual sphere to combat this insidious idea that one can have one’s own set of class based facts and logic.
    One part of the bifurcation is where the thinkers write 700 page tomes explaining, yet again, why this or that project of the left is dangerous poison while the populists. The other contains the bomb throwers you decry package it in nice sound bites and engage in the scorched earth fight to actually get people to fight a wholly bankrupt movement that was the dominant battle of the 20th century.
    Come with a solution to the problem of class based logic (nobody else has) and I think much of the rest of the problems will go away. We will still have fights but at least they will be new and interesting fights that after a few decades of evidence will be resolved.