By now both the liberal and the conservative critiques of talk radio have become familiar. Liberals say it coarsens our political discourse, caters to listeners’ worst instincts, and stirs hostility to gays, women, and minorities. Some conservatives say it alienates moderates and independents, blinds fans to the faults of Republicans (especially former President George W. Bush), and crowds out high-minded intellectual conservatism. Opinion-mongers of many persuasions agree: right-wing talk radio is bad for conservatism and bad for America.
Like it or not, it is here to stay. The man who popularized the format, Rush Limbaugh, has had the top-rated radio talk show for more than 20 years, a record that puts him among the most successful broadcasters in mass-media history. In his sympathetic new biography, Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, Zev Chafets argues that Limbaugh is also a major political force. In just the past two years, Limbaugh has disrupted and prolonged the Democratic presidential primary, dissuaded wavering GOP congressmen from compromising with President Obama, and helped elect a Republican to Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat. Chafets calls Limbaugh the “dominant Republican voice” and says he has “undisputed control of the conservative movement.” He warns, “You underestimate or ignore him at your peril.”
Yet for all his admiration, Chafets is strangely incurious about his subject. For one thing, he does not bother to find out how and when the host became interested in politics. Limbaugh landed his first job as a disc jockey at age 17, dropped out of college two years later, and spent the next couple of decades in and out of radio gigs. Only as a veteran DJ—if not dangerously close to a has-been—did Limbaugh start to talk politics, on or off the air. Says one friend and fan, “I had no idea he knew anything about it.” Then, as Chafets flatly describes it, an AM station in Kansas City hired him and “for the first time, he began openly expressing his conservative opinions on the air.” Of Limbaugh’s momentous decision to create a political radio show, Army of One reports nothing further.
Limbaugh’s apparent lack of intellectual formation suits his own purposes. “The USA is the greatest nation,” wrote Limbaugh in his first book, “not because Americans are inherently superior but because its government was founded on principles which seek to allow maximum individual achievement.” In other words, Limbaughism is nothing more than Americanism; all you need to understand his political principles is a proper civics lesson. It’s not true, of course. Limbaughism, like any other ideology, rests on a selective reading of history.
Limbaugh’s own grandfather, a Missouri assemblyman, was a 1936 delegate to the Republican National Convention, while his father, a prominent local lawyer, gave speeches railing against Communists and liberals. They saw American history as the story of how the nation’s founding principles were corrupted by later reformers. Without knowing that story in advance, Limbaugh could no more have discerned his principles in the pool of American history than Atlantis through the surface of the Western Ocean.
How politics came to preoccupy him after a lifetime of indifference Chafets does not say. Limbaugh later confessed that he did not even read National Review—the lodestar of conservative opinion for his generation—until after he became famous. Perhaps by some accident, Limbaugh discovered that his family’s politics made good material for monologues, then immersed himself for the first time in news and opinion, and conservative talk radio was born. However it was, readers will have to wait for the next biography to find out.
Chafets, whose book began as a New York Times Magazine profile, has more to say about Limbaugh’s life today. The gap between his wealth and his social standing is striking. Unlike his late friend William F. Buckley Jr., who held court every day with the good and the great, Limbaugh has shunned and been shunned by the media elite—though with an annual income equivalent to that of a multi-billionaire, he’s immensely wealthier than Buckley was. He seems little changed from the man whose first marriage fell apart because, according to Chafets, he preferred to “stay home, snack and watch sports on TV, or tinker with electronic equipment.” Limbaugh now has a lot more to tinker with: a private jet, a fleet of black Maybachs, and five beachfront houses in Palm Beach (the largest is 24,000 square feet). His main mansion’s furnishings are admirably gauche, replete with full suits of medieval armor, a replica of the Biltmore estate library, and a chandelier modeled after the one from the Plaza Hotel. But he is today, as he was as a teenager, most comfortable alone in a studio, talking into a microphone.
A happy man like Limbaugh rarely makes for interesting biography. Chafets focuses instead on Limbaugh’s political influence. He marvels at how many times his subject has made the news recently. In just the past two years, Hillary Clinton, David Letterman, Rahm Emanuel, “Saturday Night Live,” The New Yorker, the hostess of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, and the president himself have all done their part to inflate Limbaugh’s importance. He has become “a full-fledged media obsession.”
As an apology for Limbaugh and his influence, Army of One is partially (though not wholly) successful. Start with the first item of the liberal critique, that Limbaugh appeals to resentful listeners’ “worst instincts.” One professor whom Chafets quotes calls Limbaugh’s audience “embittered and battered” fools looking for someone to blame “for the mess of their own tiny, dead-end lives.” In fact, Limbaugh’s audience ranks higher in education and political knowledge than that of almost any other program, including high-minded news shows such as “PBS NewsHour” and arch satire such as “The Colbert Report.” Despite stereotypes, Limbaugh’s 20 million listeners are, objectively speaking, some of the most sophisticated in the country.
That a highly ideological program should also have a highly knowledgeable audience is not surprising. Political consumers are “rationally irrational”: that is, they do not gather political information in order to have correct opinions, but rather to root for one side and denounce the other. Limbaugh’s show answers their cravings, but with more wit than usually acknowledged. Take, for example, the notorious “Barack the Magic Negro” parody song set to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” “Barack the Magic Negro lives in D.C.,” croaks an Al Sharpton impersonator. “The L.A. Times, they called him that cause he’s not authentic like me.” Predictably, the media called the parody “controversial.” All they heard was a white conservative making fun of blacks.
Limbaugh’s audience, however, knew that the joke was really on white liberals. After Obama threatened to undermine their conviction that America was too racist to elect a black president, David Ehrenstein of the Los Angeles Times dutifully came forth with the theory of the “magic negro”: Obama made whites swoon because he was black yet unthreatening. In other words, Obama’s very success shows how deep-seated America’s racism really is. Lampooning this theory, “Barack the Magic Negro” takes it one step forward: if L.A. Times readers truly want to be racially enlightened, they should vote against the black candidate! Even Al Sharpton admitted to Chafets that the song made him laugh.
Not only does Limbaugh not scapegoat women or minorities, he is just as politically correct as his opponents, in some ways even more so. His belief in equality and color-blindness is unshakeable. “I want everyone to experience the greatness of this country. And they can,” he tells Chafets. “Stop thinking of yourself as a hyphenated American.” Defenders of affirmative action and other race-conscious policies observe that it’s not as easy as Limbaugh supposes for blacks to rise in this country. Empirically, they are quite correct. Limbaugh, however, is not interested in the causes of racial inequality. For him, any man can succeed, regardless of color. This is not racism but the opposite: Limbaugh’s belief in equality is willfully impervious to all evidence to the contrary.
Limbaugh’s liberal critics lastly charge that talk radio coarsens political discourse. To this, Limbaugh has a familiar retort: both he and mainstream media have ideological biases, but at least he acknowledges his. Which is better (or worse) cannot be resolved here. Meanwhile, much of the “coarsening” is only apparent. In 2008, Democrats ran an ad quoting Limbaugh calling Mexicans “stupid and unskilled” and telling them to “shut your mouth or you get out.” The first quotation, it later transpired, came from a 1993 monologue where Limbaugh stated that NAFTA would cause “unskilled, stupid Mexicans” to replace “unskilled, stupid Americans,” while the second turned out to be Limbaugh’s summary of Mexico’s own laws governing foreign nationals. On another occasion, reporters repeated as accurate an apocryphal quote by Limbaugh praising Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray. The pervasive stereotype of an angry white man provoking hatred makes the media oblivious to Limbaugh’s satire, which in turn causes them to overestimate the alleged ugliness of Limbaugh’s show.
Conservatives’ critique of Limbaugh is more subtle, as Limbaugh is one of them. Indeed, one complaint—that right-wing talk radio alienates independents and moderates—borders on preciosity. Independents may not like Limbaugh, but for better or worse, he does galvanize GOP partisans. Nobody knows which effect predominates, but talk radio probably does more to help the GOP than hobble it. Pundits went cock-a-hoop when Rahm Emanuel called Rush Limbaugh “the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party,” and Obama told GOP leaders, “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.” Two comments in a row about Rush Limbaugh—clearly this was a calculated White House media strategy! Pundits savvy enough to discern the scheme overlooked that independents and moderates do not follow politics closely enough to do the same. For them, Rush Limbaugh will never be salient enough to matter.
A more serious complaint is that talk radio drowns out thoughtful conservatism. Rush Limbaugh et al. do not waste their time engaging the best possible arguments for the other side. To keep their audience entertained, they instead rely on a stock of techniques that create the illusion that they have triumphed over all who disagree with them. First, they cherry-pick their opponents’ most foolish statements. Second, they restate the other side’s ideas only in their most extreme and unlimited form. Finally, they impute to them only the most nefarious motives. Follow these techniques and voila! You, too, can gratify your friends and enrage your enemies.
To his credit, Limbaugh pulls off this performance with winking braggadocio. Hailing, he says, from the “Excellence in Broadcasting Network,” he is right “97.9% of the time,” and “with talent on loan from God” can refute liberals “with half his brain tied behind his back, just to make it fair.” Only when Limbaugh drops the humor does the poverty of his ideas become obvious. At last year’s Conservative Political Action Committee, Limbaugh delivered a long extemporaneous speech on what conservatives believe. It used all the usual techniques. Limbaugh quoted foolish statements made by Democrats (Joe Biden not remembering the name of a website he had touted, Hillary Clinton using an awkward turn of phrase suggesting that she would willfully refuse to believe anything David Petraeus said), formulated Democratic and progressive ideas so as to sound as extreme as possible (liberal policies become “this collectivism socialism stuff” and “punishment of the achievers”), and imputed wicked motives to Democrats and liberals (at bottom, said Limbaugh, they just want to control others, a theory he falsely attributed to F.A. Hayek). Limbaugh at his most serious is unable or unwilling to understand what his opponents actually believe.
That talk radio does not thoughtfully engage the other side, however, does not mean it is bad for conservatism. To establish the latter conclusion, critics also need to show that it makes thoughtful conservatism from other outlets less likely. How does Rush Limbaugh humming into his microphone in Florida make an ambitious young conservative writer in New York less reflective? It’s hard to tell. Talk-radio hosts have, one suspects, become whipping boys for others’ crimes. Conservative critics of talk radio complain that thoughtful conservatism is in decline. Afraid to name names, however, they instead choose relatively easy targets, namely, talk-radio hosts. Sensing that they are the ones being rebuked, the official custodians of “thoughtful conservatism” then leap to the defense of talk radio.
This travesty of a real disagreement has been replayed several times now. Just recently, Jim Manzi—noting that perhaps conservatives could be more critical of their own—took the trouble to dissect talk-radio host Mark Levin’s argument denying that human activity has caused global warming. Manzi observed that Levin rested his case on an argument from authority (not to mention several arguments ad hominem, on which Manzi chose not to dwell), but the authorities to which he appealed either had no expertise in climate science or else did not actually reject anthropogenic global warming. On cue, as if to prove Manzi correct, two National Review writers upbraided Manzi, not for making unsound points, but for criticizing a fellow conservative and making him look ridiculous. Movement conservatives take attacks on talk-radio hosts surprisingly personally. If I am right, the reason is that they see little difference between their efforts and those of talk-radio hosts.
Still, talk radio is at worst emblematic of conservative intellectual decline, not a cause of it. Yes, in the age of talk radio, conservatism has become less highbrow. In the late 1990s, for example, hoping to capture a mass audience, National Review transformed itself from a fortnightly magazine into a daily webzine. (To be sure, the magazine National Review is still printed, but to little interest or acclaim.) Meanwhile, conservative journalists and media personalities flood the marketplace with low- or middlebrow bestsellers. Rush Limbaugh proved that conservatism could be popular and profitable. Not surprisingly, many aspire to a share of the lucre.
The highness of a work’s “brow,” however, is not a measure of its merit or thoughtfulness, however much the inventors of the “brow” categories, principally Dwight Macdonald, conflated the two. Brow is a measure of the effort and background knowledge required to understand a particular work. Thoughtfulness, by contrast, is the degree to which a work considers, understands, and responds to opposing arguments. The conservative movement has many, perhaps even a surfeit of upper-middlebrow organs—The New Criterion and The Claremont Review of Books, for example. They are not necessarily any more thoughtful for appealing to a more educated audience than Limbaugh, however. For decades, top-tier intellectual talent flowed in the conservative movement’s direction. In the past 15 or 20 years, the tide has reversed. A year does not pass now without at least one conservative intellectual repudiating ties to the movement.
The one criticism of talk radio that does hit the mark is that it has blinded listeners to the faults of the Republican Party. Has it ever. Chafets describes Rush Limbaugh’s support for the Iraq War:
This was war, flat-out, and he wanted it fought no-holds-barred, without nuances or niceties, World War II-style. Limbaugh realized, as many more sophisticated commentators did not, that the [9/11] attack on America was not an isolated criminal act launched by a group of fanatics operating out of Afghanistan. If it had been, there would not be cheering on the rooftops of Baghdad, Ramallah, Cairo and Damascus and Teheran. This was the logical next step in the wild anti-Americanism that had dominated Middle Eastern political culture … for decades. Limbaugh didn’t believe in winning the hearts and minds of these enemies; he had no respect for either. What he wanted was a victory so brutal and so decisive that it would leave the countries of the Middle East prostrate and remorseful, like the Germans and Japanese of an earlier era. Afghanistan was a good place to start, if that’s what Bush wanted, but capitulation [sic] would mean a killer punch into the centers of the enemy. Baghdad was one of those centers. … Total war was justified until the Arabs cried uncle.
In other words, the U.S. should retaliate not just against those who attacked us on 9/11, but against whole regions whose sole fault was that they contained anti-American populations. Not only that, but the U.S. should wage “total war” against them, such as was waged against the Germans and Japanese (you know, with bombing civilians). Commendably, Chafets does not downplay Limbaugh’s views—perhaps, indeed, he is perversely exaggerating them. Instead, he leaves the immorality and futility of Limbaugh’s post-9/11 policy recommendations—wage war against whole peoples merely to punish them for having misguided opinions—lying in the open like an unburied corpse.
Talk-radio hosts should be blamed for promoting these attitudes. But they are not alone. Most movement outlets, including the most highbrow, promoted them as well, without hesitation or apology. Even today, movement conservatives will read the passage cited above and not think anything of it. Many will doubtless nod approvingly.
Talk radio is not what ails the American Right. If anything, it adds redeeming virtues. Rush Limbaugh and his songwriter, Paul Shanklin, bring a more consistent level of excellence to conservatism than perhaps anyone else in the movement. Many others share their faults—just without being as funny.
Austin Bramwell is a freelance writer living in New York City.
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