Thursday, February 26, 2009


In reaction to Rush Limbaugh's impassioned, almost bro-mantic defense of Bobby Jindal (to fellow-right-wingers: "if you think ... Jindal was horrible, ... I don't ever want to hear from you ever again"), "crunchy conservative" Rod Dreher quotes a recent essay in which John Derbyshire argues that Limbaugh and other wingnut talkers are harmful to the glorious right-wing Cause.

I'm shocked, really -- I would have assumed that a right-wing denunciation of talk radio was as likely as a loan shark's skepticism about thumb-breaking -- but, well, there it is. Derbyshire writes:

...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.

It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem -- Feminazis instead of feminism -- and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob.

...We don't know how to speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly -- indeed, conservatively -- wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions.

Well, John, too bad -- that horse has left the barn. The little ellipsis in the middle of the E.J. Dionne quote? Dionne mentioned a third name: " -- and Sarah Palin." Talk radio appears to have done its damage -- perhaps the biggest star in the GOP is a politician who seems to get all of her ideas, opinions, and pugnacious postures directly from the medium. And even Republican pols who aren't stupid appear to be affected; as Daniel Larison notes, talk radio seems to have eaten Jindal's brain:

... there is such a thing as lamenting a bankruptcy of ideas, especially when it is a case of someone as genuinely talented and smart as Jindal reciting the no-earmarks-plus-more-tax-cuts catechism. It is all the more frustrating and painful to listen to the boilerplate when it is coming from someone we know could offer so much more that would be worthy of serious debate.


But is all this really the talkers' fault? Hardly. What Limbaugh and the other talkers give us is simply the essential nature of the right for approximately half a century. Rush et al. are a symptom, not a cause.

I don't care how many ten-dollar words William F. Buckley slung around, or how many books Richard Nixon wrote -- the modern conservative movement has always been "lowbrow," always been driven by provocateurs "catering to reflex rather than thought." The supposedly highbrow Buckley called Gore Vidal a "queer" on national TV, ran a stunt campaign for mayor, declared that he'd rather have the government entrusted to the first 400 names in the phone book than to Harvard guys, and called for tattooing of the HIV-positive. Even the alleged intellectual giant of the movement was an ur-Limbaugh playing to the cheap seats.

Goldwater was a rabble-rouser; Nixon was a rabble-rouser; Reagan and Gingrich were rabble-rousers. The rabble were roused by the anti-busing movement and the Proposition 13 movement. They're roused by the New York Post and Fox News. Movement conservatism has never made an effort to offer anything to "that vast segment of the American middle class that ... has a horror of strong opinions." Provocateurs are always in the forefront.

Limbaugh and his imitators have merely distilled the pure essence of what right-wing Republicanism always was: an angry, overwrought movement aimed at the resentful and the revenge-minded. If there were no Limbaugh, someone wingnut think tank would have invented him. Rabble-rousing is the essence of the movement. The talkers merely melt the anger down into verbal bullets the Jindals and Palins and Steeles and Cantors of the world can use to arm themselves -- and need to use if they want the votes and donations of the resentniks.

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