Of Rush Limbaugh, Limbaughism, And The Future Of The GOP

David Frum’s Washington Post review of Zev Chafets’s Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One has already been attacked by many on the right, but his closing paragraphs make a point worth considering:

Chafets acknowledges that Limbaugh has no conception of fairness or objectivity, that he is not an original thinker, and that he is prone to “hyperbole, sarcasm, and ridicule, none of which is meant to be taken literally.” He’s unnerved by Limbaugh’s “Magic Negro” racial insensitivities and his indifference to real politics. ” ‘There are no books written about great moderates,’ he sometimes says. ‘Great people take stands on principle, not moderation.’ That’s not true of course — the founding fathers Limbaugh venerates compromised their way into a Constitution, and even Ronaldus Maximus [Reagan] knew when to bend. Politics is the art of compromise. But, of course, Limbaugh is not a politician or even a political strategist. He is a polemicist.”

It might seem ominous for an intellectual movement to be led by a man who does not think creatively, who does not respect the other side of the argument and who frequently says things that are not intended as truth. But neither Limbaugh nor Chafets is troubled: “Over the years, [Limbaugh] has endeavored to carry forward the banner of Ronaldus Maximus, which he always credits as ‘Reaganism.’ But as time moves on the memory of Reagan fades. It is Limbaugh’s voice conservatives now identify with. For millions, conservatism is now Limbaughism.”

That is Limbaugh’s achievement. It is Chafets’s story line. And it is American conservatism’s problem.

Which I agree with Stephen’s point from a few weeks ago that Limbaugh’s influence over the GOP is often over-stated, both by those who like Rush and those who don’t, but Frum makes an excellent point about what Limbaughism, for lack of a better word, has done to the GOP in general and conservatives specifically.

As much as he might deny it, Limbaugh and his ilk were, for most of the Bush Administration a water carrier for the Republican Party and George W. Bush, saying nothing while the Administration increased the national debt at an alarming rate.

Heaven help you, though, 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,  either weren’t talked about at all or they were ridiculed.

It was John Derbyshire, though, who pointed out the greatest damage that talk-radio conservatism has done:

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.

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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    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.

    I used to talk about how I liked Firing Line conservatism. The politest responses I got were basically “get over it” and they went down hill from there.

  2. I wonder how the way modern day conservatism is conceptualized and presented–the shrill, polemic, bombastic monologues that spew forth from conservative media heads–will affect the party and movement in a generation. The media, pollsters, and politicians in general were so surprised by how young voters not just supported Obama, but actually came out to vote in 2008. But what was the alternative? Young voters, like myself, saw a conservative movement led by shrill talking heads unconcerned with reason or fact, and a Republican party that embraced it by nominated Sarah Palin. And people were suprised that young voters not just supported Obama, but were active enough to put him in the White House?

    And what will this continuance of this form of conservatism due to Conservative/Republican’s future? I see a conservative movement (the tea party) that is quickly becoming the face of all things conservative, yet its demographic make-up is almost entirely middle-aged or elderly, and its core issues are at odds with almost any young voter, Republican or Democrat (don’t believe me? Ask the average tea party member what they think of capping carbon to stop global warming–or even if global warming exists, then ask the average <25 Republican and Democrat. Betting odds are that the young Republican's and the young Democrat's answers are more similar than the young Republican's and the tea party member.)

    In all, it seems that this current brand of conservatism is great at firing up a certain base right here and now, but is hurting the conservative movement's long-range outlook.

  3. Oh, I forgot the original point that made me type that super long comment. I’m 26, white, male, making quite decent money, and quite well educated in both historical and modern political philosophy. I have no idea what Firing Line was. I’m quite familiar Rush Limbaugh. Guess which movement–progressive or conservative–strikes me as the most sane.

  4. I also need to stop using the word “quite.”

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    Air America. It’s not conservatism but the medium that creates the harshness. Air America proved it even though they failed.

    Rush is an entertainer who used politics as his muse. It has worked very well and made him very rich but I don’t see him as a leader of the Right. Palin is sort of the same, not really a leader but merely someone who comments on the failures of the Left. Both remain popular in part because of the Left’s fascination with them and their occasional nuggets of truth.

    To me the Right, and especially the Tea Party groups, has no leader and isn’t anxious to get one. Leaders of the past twenty years have failed to live up to their promises and looked to consolidate power rather than do the right things. In short, they can’t be trusted any more than the Dems.

    The idea Bush ran up debt at an “alarming rate” is silly. Especially in the context of how it is being ran up now. Bush had a war to fight and those costs added greatly to the debt. A war authorized by Congress for those of you who want to blame Bush for that.

    There is a leadership vacuum at present but it’s going to take someone very principled to get the nod. It’s not Palin and it’s not the talking heads. It will be a politician who will lead and will have a solid track record justifying the trust given.

  6. Part of the problem with the talk radio right is that it has made “conservatism” something you say rather than something you do. One doesn’t have to actually control spending, once just has to say how much they hate big government. One doesn’t have to be faithful one’s wife, one just have to talk about family values all the time.

    The other problem is that “convervatism” has been basically been reduced to just another political identity group. All that matters is one’s membership in and loyalty to the group. If you’re part of the tribe, you can get away with almost anything (as long as you don’t make the tribe look bad).

    Combine the two and you get a present where conservative thought has been basically reduced to something akin to a gang sign; it only exists to signal group membership and any actually meanign that repeated phrases might have are purely conincidental.

  7. sam says:

    Firing Line (1966-1999) was an American public affairs show founded and hosted by conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. Its 1,504 episodes over 33 years made Firing Line the longest-running public affairs show in television history with a single host. The erudite program, which featured many of the most prominent intellectuals and public figures in the United States, won an Emmy Award in 1969.

    Although the program’s format varied over the years, it typically featured the politically conservative Buckley interviewing a guest and exchanging views, with the two seated together in front of a small studio audience. Standing or sitting further away in the studio, an “examiner”, typically a political liberal, would ask questions, generally toward the end of the show. Guests were people notable in the fields of politics to religion, literature and academia, and their views could sharply contrast or be in strong agreement with Buckley’s. Most guests were intellectuals, and they were interviewed about ideas and issues of the day.

    Reflecting Buckley’s talents and preferences, the exchange of views was almost always polite, and the guests were given time to answer questions at length, slowing the pace of the program. “The show was devoted to a leisurely examination of issues and ideas at an extremely high level”, according to Jeff Greenfield, who frequently appeared as an examiner.[1] John Kenneth Galbraith said of the program, “Firing Line is one of the rare occasions when you have a chance to correct the errors of the man who’s interrogating you.”[1]

    Great stuff. Nothing approaches it, right or left, today.

  8. sam says:

    @Plunk

    It will be a politician who will lead and will have a solid track record justifying the trust given.

    Heh. I’ll bet it’s Multiple-Choice Mitt. And you’ll get to pick from a menu of track records. Truly, the Republican Party is effed up, but your faith is touching.

  9. john personna says:

    Air America. It’s not conservatism but the medium that creates the harshness. Air America proved it even though they failed.

    You know, I think it might have been a greater criticism for the left being all the same if Air America hadn’t failed.

    Yeah, I know, Olberman is still there but I don’t think he’s terribly strong these days. (Maddow is different. She may want to be a sort of anti-Rush but she holds herself back. She can’t quite do it, which speaks well of her.)

  10. Juneau: says:

    Maddow, Matthews, and Olberman are the rabid combative voices of the left that would be the equivalent of Rush limbaugh if you want to make a comparison. They really aren’t much f a comparison. Maddow can’t get her facts straight ( actually that’s generous – she just outright lies), Matthews has neutralized his credibility and is now affectionately known as “Mr. Tingles” , and Olberman is pretty much a rabid dog with glasses and a nasal whine.

    It is very amusing to read statements here about these liberal talking heads that rate them as if they have serious ideas and commentary, rather than just rank partisan views.

  11. john personna says:

    Well, the “Mr. Tingles” thing is an easy way to separate the rightest from the moderates as well. You will simply not find a moderate who is down on Matthews. They may not be that into him, either, but that’s kind of the point.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    Rush has influence because the Republicans have a lack of leadership. Both Bush Administration worked hard to ensure that no new Republicans leadership was created that would compete with the members of the Bush clan. Thus, the Republicans have had zero leadership for over 20 years. The Bush II Administration was a case study of failure, incompetence, stupidity, and short-sightedness. No one who served in the Bush II Administration have any credibility when discussing policy or governance. The same can be said for the incompetent failures that are the Republican leadership in Congress.

    Until conservative leadership comes along that is competent, hard working, and has a vision for the future, the Rush Limbaughs will have more influence.

  13. tom p says:

    The idea Bush ran up debt at an “alarming rate” is silly.

    (jaw hits floor…)

  14. Steve,

    The idea Bush ran up debt at an “alarming rate” is silly. Especially in the context of how it is being ran up now. Bush had a war to fight and those costs added greatly to the debt. A war authorized by Congress for those of you who want to blame Bush for that.

    You’re joking, right ?

    Bush increased the National debt from $ 5 trillion to $ 10 trillion in eight years.

    Even after you take out defense spending and “entitlements,” he increased spending at a faster pace than any President since Lyndon Johnson. The war(s) had nothing to do with it, although I will say that it was fiscally irresponsible to cut taxes, increase spending, and fight two wars all at the same time.

  15. Steve Plunk says:

    Doug,

    Please, put the Bush deficits up against the Obama deficits. The size of the Obama deficits dwarf the Bush years. To say otherwise is ignoring reality and exposing partisanship. I take that back. Your partisanship was obvious from your first posts. I admit my my affection for the Right and would appreciate your admission of disaffection for the Right.

  16. Steve,

    Please, put the Bush deficits up against the Obama deficits. The size of the Obama deficits dwarf the Bush years. To say otherwise is ignoring reality and exposing partisanship.

    Where, pray tell, did I say that ?

    My point is that Republicans need to acknowledge the reality of the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush years, or they will not have learned their lesson.

    Your partisanship was obvious from your first posts.

    So because I criticize Bush I’m an Obama-bot ?

    Boy, you have no idea how wrong you are

  17. So because I criticize Bush I’m an Obama-bot ?

    Boy, you have no idea how wrong you are

    Again, modern conservatism is all about group identity. If you criticize the big chief, you must be from the other tribe.

  18. Steve Plunk says:

    Doug you never mentioned the Obama deficits while speaking of the Bush deficits. I doubt you are an “Obama-bot” but clearly you show a distaste for Republicans. Enough to show partisanship in my opinion. Many on the Right have voiced their displeasure with the Bush deficits but we also see that a war contributed to those deficits. A war Bush didn’t ask for.

    Stormy, It’s not the criticism that makes a person partisan but the lack of context and fairness. The Obama deficits are a huge leap compared to what Bush ran up. It must be a part of any deficit and debt conversation. I didn’t call Bush deficits “alarming” while ignoring Obama deficits. I didn’t come back with “You’re joking, right?”. I didn’t go back to the Johnson administration while ignoring Obama. Doug claimed the war had nothing to do with the Bush deficits. That’s is absolutely wrong. All of these things add up to a partisan bias that needs to be admitted.

    Partisanship leads to sloppy thinking and that’s what’s happening here. It’s not tribalism or group identity. That’s a cop out way to slur conservatives and Republicans when they push their own ideas and point out the failures of the liberal ideas.

  19. Steve,

    I didn’t mention the Obama deficits, which are tremendous and horrible, because they weren’t relevant to the overall point, which had to to with the intellectual bankruptcy of the brand of conservatism represented by Limbaugh, et al.

    Republicans and conservatives do a great job of pushing the small government fiscal conservative ideas when they’re out of power, but they act very differently when they’re in power.

  20. R. Carmell says:

    Talk radio, especially Mr. Limbaugh is demonized for exposing the truth. If this were not the case, the left would not attack the conservative position with such relentless dedication.

  21. reid says:

    Of course, if you’re interested in context and fairness, you should probably also mention that Obama’s deficits are at a time when the economy is at its worst in many decades. A salient point, no? Bush and the R’s managed to create huge deficits during a mostly good economy and nearly sent us into a great depression.

  22. Juneau: says:

    Bush and the R’s managed to create huge deficits during a mostly good economy and nearly sent us into a great depression.

    Baloney.

  23. G.A.Phillips says:

    Another futile attempt to pick a fight with the fastest gun in the west, lol… You are very lucky that he probably will not shoot back at you if there is such a thing as luck, I don’t believe that there is.
    I really love to tell you this, but not only is Rush a thousand times more informed, historically accurate, prophetic, conservative, truthful, intellectual, logically accurate, understanding and legally accurate than you or any, save small number who writes here can hope to be, because of there indoctrination, so are 95% of his listeners.
    And go to figure more than a hand full of OTB commentators listen to and read him…

    I have listened to him for like 20 years, liberals all my life. Where are your facts? Where is your experience in this matter? Have you ever listened to Rush?
    I call Donkey Poop on your whole post!

    Oh, I forgot the original point that made me type that super long comment. I’m 26, white, male, making quite decent money, and quite well educated in both historical and modern political philosophy. I have no idea what Firing Line was. I’m quite familiar Rush Limbaugh. Guess which movement–progressive or conservative–strikes me as the most sane.

    lol lets guess the one that murders millions of babies burns Christmas cards and seek to bring communism the all the creatures of the earth?

    lol. and then you want to go messing with Mark lavin and Rush hahahahahaha…….

  24. G.A.Phillips says:

    Juneau: says:
    Saturday, May 29, 2010 at 03:11
    Bush and the R’s managed to create huge deficits during a mostly good economy and nearly sent us into a great depression.

    Baloney.

    lol, yup…. and speaking of baloney, I like baloney on my FDR party sub:)

    Cooooorection LEVIN!!!!!!!!!

  25. Bob Andelman says:

    Rush Limbaugh’s biographer, Zev Chafets, author of Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, talked to Mr. Media Radio on June 3, 2010, about El Rushbo’s new bride, Kathryn Rogers, and much more. Check it out by clicking HERE!