How Limbaugh, Hannity, And The Rest Are Ruining The Right

By  | 

John Derbyshire has a great article in the current issue of The American Conservative discussing the impact of conservative talk radio on conservatism as a whole:

[A]re 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.”

And if you dared to be one of those criticizing the Bush Administration’s domestic policy, or question it’s foreign policy, then watch out. Even if you were a Republican you were still a traitor, a RINO, un-American. For eight long years, with only a few minor deviations such as the nonsense over the Dubai Ports Deal or Bush’s inexplicably stupid selection of Harriet Meirs for the Supreme Court, conservative talk radio carried the water for an Administration and a Republican Party that was anything but conservative.

During the 2008 Election, you heard more from Rush, Sean, and the rest of the gang about the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama than about the Republicans. There was precious little discussion about Mike Huckabee’s love for taxes, Mitt Romney’s flip-flops, or John McCain’s, well, John McCain-ness. And voices in the party for limited government and rational foreign policy, like Ron Paul, they either weren’t talked about at all or they were ridiculed.

But it’s not just their slavish loyalty to whatever Republican happens to be in power that bothers Derbyshire about the talk radio crowd:

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.


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.

You could see this triumph of low-browism in full force during the 2008 General Election from the adulation given to a totally unknown Governor who virtually celebrated anti-intellectualism, to the attention given an unlicensed plumber from Ohio who managed to get himself YouTube’d repeating a GOP talking point, to the unstated assumptions that many had about Barack Obama that just weren’t true.

And you could see just how well that went over on Election Night.

Joe Gandelman makes this excellent point about the damage that this has done to the right, and the GOP:

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.


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.

In the 1970s the voice of conservatism on the air was Firing Line. Today it’s Rush, Sean, Laura, Mark, and Michael. If anyone doesn’t recognize that’s a step backward, it’s only because they’ve become used to associating the right with the latter rather than the former.

Rush Limbaugh may be the “leader of the opposition,” but he doesn’t have to be, and he shouldn’t be.

Cross posted from Below The Beltway.