Why Rush Limbaugh is So Popular
- 1. Open the continental shelf to drilling. Ditto the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
2. Establish a 17 percent flat tax.
3. Privatize Social Security.
4. Give parents school vouchers to break the monopoly of public education.
5. Revoke Jimmy Carter’s passport while he is out of the country.
6. Abandon all government policies based on the hoax of man-made global warming.
If liberalish conservative intellectuals seek a Sam’s Club Conservatism, then #2 and #3 are the more traditional variant: Mercede’s conservatism. #4 is a bad public policy idea, but it is a public policy idea. But #1 #5, and #6 speak of a largely bankrupt movement: They’re pure resentment politics, mixed with a toxic distaste for empiricism. The stereotypical liberal loves the environment, so Limbaugh will drill up the shelf, a policy that won’t do much to increase the oil supply, but will presumably piss off Al Gore. And you know what will really piss off Al Gore? Doing nothing about global warming. Denying its very existence. Oh, and for good measure, screw Jimmy Carter.
I was an avid listener to Rush’s show once upon a time but hardly ever catch it these days owing to a combination of scheduling and the fact that I grew tired of the schtick some years back. Still, this “platform” shows quite well why Rush is so popular with middle America. And, no, it’s no ressentiment.
#1 and #6 have nothing to do with poking liberals in general or Al Gore in particular in the eye. Rather, it’s a much more basic populist appeal: “You’re paying four bucks a gallon for gas and these liberal do-gooders are more worried about the spotted owl than your ability to take care of your family!”
#2 and #3 aren’t about making the rich richer. Frankly, while that would be great for Rush, he of the recent $400 million contract extension, you don’t get 20 million listeners by appealing to the top one percent of income earners. Most Americans hate the tax code and, especially, the burden of keeping records and filing their taxes every year. Pretty much everyone thinks it’s way too complicated and nobody knows whether they’re paying “their fair share” or not. Indeed, most everyone suspects People like me are getting screwed while everyone who makes less or more than they do is getting over. Social Security? Most people support the idea behind the system — making sure granny can feed herself and keep the lights on — but they resent the huge amount withheld from their paycheck combined with a growing (if almost certainly incorrect) sense that they’ll never actually see any retirement dividends from the system.
#4 is about culture more than about education. Middle America thinks the schools are brainwashing their kids to reject parental values rather than teaching the so-called “Three R’s.” Beyond that, there’s a real sense that schools aren’t very good and that having to teach to the lowest common denominator is robbing their own kids (all of whom are above average) of a decent education.
#5 is a joke. Rush doesn’t actually want to deport Jimmy Carter, he just enjoys poking fun at him. Republicans of a certain age find Jimmy Carter very funny.
Limbaugh’s appeal is that he’s simultaneously Everyman, expressing the values and frustrations of Regular People who believe their values and way of life are under assault from elites in Hollywood, the news media, higher education, and inside the dreaded Beltway as well as a very bright, humorous, entertaining fellow. People enjoy spending parts of the three hours a day he’s on listening to him. Whether they are giving him mega-dittos, shaking their head in disbelief, or screaming at the radio, they’re not bored. Rush is more engaging than Sean Hannity, more comfortable than Michael Savage, funnier than Gordon Liddy, and less preachy than Laura Schlessinger.
His act wears thin if you’re an intellectual. But he can afford to lose a few hundred people.
Photo: Nigel Parry for The New York Times