Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rush Limbaugh’s Status Among Conservatives

I only get to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program when I’m in the backseat of New York City taxis— daytime talk radio doesn’t fit into my schedule and, from the little I’ve heard of it, I doubt that I’d listen much to it even if it did. But, from what I can tell, Limbaugh knows exactly what he’s doing. The zeal of the conservative movement's critics to portray him as the its de facto leader hasn’t gone to Limbaugh's head. He knows perfectly well that he’s a political entertainer, more in the business of telling jokes and selling product than of changing minds. Seen in this light, the appropriate measure of his success isn’t the political influence he wields, but the advertising revenue he generates.

There’s no denying, however, that Limbaugh enjoys an elevated status in the conservative community. He’s treated deferentially not only by rank-and-file ditto-heads, but by high-brow conservative publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard. What significance you attach to this fact will depend, in large measure, on what you think of Limbaugh’s commentary: to some, its high quality entitles him to that deference; to others, a radio huckster’s commanding such respect is Exhibit A in the argument for epistemic closure in the conservative movement. This is just one more case where our judgments about our political opponents’ rationality are largely a projection of our own ideological commitments.

Let’s stipulate, for the purposes of argument, that talk radio in general, and Limbaugh’s material in particular, isn’t intellectually edifying enough to justify his high status among conservatives. What follows from that generous concession?

As far as I can see, not nearly as much as the people deploring conservative close-mindedness think. Being an effective conservative rabble rouser isn’t the same thing as being an authoritative voice in the conservative community. Granted, conservatives agree with Limbaugh most of the time—that follows from their being conservatives. Yet I know of no evidence that many conservatives subscribe to opinions just because Limbaugh voices them. Getting out in front of public opinion isn’t the same thing as leading it. The limits of Limbaugh’s authority in conservative circles are vividly demonstrated by the fact that his influence is deplored by conservatives of the stature of David Frum and David Brooks. Despite Limbaugh’s immense popularity among rank-and-file conservatives, lots of mainstream conservatives are happy to be seen disagreeing with him. Moreover, the limits of Limbaugh's influence were demonstrated vividly by the fact that someone Limbaugh detests as much as John McCain could be the Republican Party's presidential candidate, with substantial support from its conservative wing, in the last election.

Consider this comparison:

When liberals launched the Air America Radio Network, they weren’t able to come close to matching the ratings of conservative talk-radio despite employing talent with a proven track record. Al Franken, the network’s principal attraction, was not only a successful television comedian, but an accomplished ideological infighter who’d authored best selling books about conservatives with titles like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. When their hopes that Limbaugh had finally met his ideological match were dashed, liberals consoled themselves with the thought that their ideological comrades are too intellectually discerning to warm to the talk-radio format.

But look what happened to Franken after his stint on Air America. Having struck out on talk radio, his next move was to run for a Minnesota senate seat. You might have thought that the senatorial candidacy of a television comedian would have been greeted even in liberal circles as comic relief, in the tradition of the tongue-in-cheek presidential candidacy contemplated by Stephen Colbert in the last election cycle, or that Pat Paulsen mounted back in 1968. But Franken wasn’t joking and the liberal community wasn’t laughing. Evidently, a goodly number Minnesotans, and virtually all Minnesota liberals, not only agree with Franken on the issues, but are willing to authorize the author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot to speak on their behalf. More impressive still, you’d be hard pressed to find a reputable liberal pundit who dreamed of asking whether a career as an irreverent entertainer qualifies one for a seat in the Senate.

So which ideological community is more susceptible to epistemic closure, the conservatives who admire Limbaugh or the liberals who elected a Bizarro-Limbaugh to the Senate? If that question gives you even a moment’s pause, that’s just one more sign of how little intellectual return there is on ideologues’ psychological investment in the other side’s irrationality.

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