Friday, January 27, 2012

Rush Limbaugh's America

One of the chief reasons that I am undertaking this series of essays, is my frustration at the super-heated rhetoric passing for political discourse these days. It is often commented upon - the polarization that has so cobbled our ability to reach meaningful compromise - but I don't know that most understand how we got here from a less contentious place.

So, without resorting to studies, I'll give you my take.

In 1984, a young radio host from a politically active family in Cape Girardeau Missouri, was hired to replace the trash-talking Morton Downey Jr. at KFBK in Sacramento California. This was a politically charged time in a state that, though called a "blue" state, almost always elects Republican Governors. In '84, just a year after voters had replaced Jerry Brown with Republican George "Duke" Deukmejian, beloved former governor Ronald Reagan was re-elected president in a landslide.  The economy was bobbing back from a shallow recession, and conservative thought was ascendant as the new host took over. And take over he did. Though only 33 at the time, he already had 17 years of on-air experience at small stations in the heartland and a growing reputation. He also had a no-holds-barred style that perfectly updated Downey's shtick. He was popular instantly. His name was Rush Hudson Limbaugh.

Traditionally, anyone driving through the lush central valley of California would, when searching for a radio station, hear only Bakersfield country music, the Spanish language stations that serviced the agricultural labor-force, and small blink-and-you-miss-'em stations featuring swap-shows, farm reports and radio preachers. Now, within a hundred miles of the capitol, you could hear this Limbaugh fellow honing his craft. KFBK had a long reach. One of only two U.S. stations licensed for a Franklin Antenna which effectively doubled its 50,000 watts of power. Limbaugh took calls, read widely, and developed an uncanny sense of how to hold an audience.

Then, in 1987 with Iran-Contra and Reagan's full-court press to marginalize the Soviet Union firing passions between the Left and Right, a funny thing happened: the FCC discontinued the Fairness Doctrine. Now radio announcers had unprecedented freedom. Presenting a balanced view of controversial issues was no longer the standard. The guy who'd been warming up in the batter's box received a perfect high-inside fast-ball. The former head of ABC radio caught wind of this flamethrower out in California, and not only put him on the air in New York, but began syndicating Limbaugh himself. Reagan was gone, and G.H.W. Bush in place, and over the next four years, Limbaugh's people got him onto every station large or small that would have him.

Sam Walton knew that if you put Walmart stores in places Sears thought inconsequential, people would find them and develop a loyalty. Then, when big enough, a run on the larger markets would be do-able. Limbaugh knew this too. By the time his show appeared on KFI in Los Angeles, he was in several hundred markets around the country. He'd become a ratings juggernaut, seemingly out of nowhere, with an act forged in the heartland and honed to an edge in New York City. Just in time for the arrival of Slick Willie. At last, the enemy was in the White House.

I lived and worked in L.A., at the time, painting houses. I listened to talk radio to pass the day quickly and occupy my mind while busying my hands with manual labor. I would listen to Michael Jackson in the morning. He was a wry, urbane gentleman with a mellifluous British accent and access to Hollywood and the literary world. When he dipped into politics, it was only in passing, and it was clear that his own viewpoint was center-left. I loved the show. After him in the KABC line-up was David Viscott, a radio-therapist with spiritualist leanings. The late afternoon was in the hands of a man named Dennis Prager who'd expanded from a weekend theology show called Religion on The Line to a daily show where general current events were discussed through the lens of morality and political abstraction. Prager identified himself as a "passionate centrist", but he was moving to the right.

Just down the dial, unbeknownst to me, Limbaugh's more aggressive brand of call-in show was beginning to leech listenership from the more temperate and wide-ranging Jackson. Soon KFI had given Limbaugh a radio-shrink as follow-up. But this was no California love-fest. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, not a psychologist, but a physiologist, was not selling gentle self-acceptance like her rival, but a sort of old-testament morality. She wasn't doing Freud and Jung, she was doing Moses and the ten commandments. This in Los Angeles, the odds-on favorite to become the new Sodom or bring the last of western civilization crashing down like a tower into the streets of Babel. Who knew that there were moralists among us. And, gasp, Republicans. Soon, Michael Jackson was gone and Viscott too. A new, less centrist Prager filled Jackson's slot, and later, a hyper-kinetic conservative talker from Cleveland, Larry Elder, came to fill Viscott's slot. KABC was swinging to the right. They modulated the impact of this with a tricky ploy; Prager, now openly conservative was ... wait for it ... Jewish. And Elder was ... Black.

And something like this was apparently happening in every city in America. Until AM radio was nearly all talk. And that talk is nearly all political. And the viewpoint nearly all Conservative. How many are there? These sons of Rush? At the end of this column, I'll list the top ten and their ratings. But what of the liberals? Why were there not just as many left-wing talkers with phone-in shows?  Why so little balance? In a country that we know to be divided pretty evenly left to right, why are the radio talk hosts 90+ percent conservative. As I see it, there are two primary reasons.

First, as a general rule, people who work with their hands are able to listen to talk radio during the day, and people who work with their brains are not. If you work in a warehouse driving a forklift, you are perfectly able to do your job with a radio on. If, however, you work in a brokerage house, you are not. Construction worker or truck driver? Turn it up. Accountant or lawyer? Turn it off. And, I think that it's fair to say that college educated folks are less likely to be unclogging your drains than they are straightening out your probate issues. So, AM talk radio has a natural audience among the less formally educated.

Related to this is the sense among wage workers that they have been disadvantaged. There is a bit of an inferiority complex there, particularly in an age where it has become axiomatic that a college degree is the difference between upward mobility and no mobility at all. This twinge of self pity can be easily tweaked into a full-bodied resentment. And, as we know, resentments can develop lives of their own. It is relatively easy to lay society's ills at the feet of the "educated elite" when your audience feels neither elite nor particularly well educated. Canny conservative hosts know that triggering a little insecurity in a listener will keep him or her listening longer. As if the solution may be forthcoming.

Are blue-collar people more likely to lean right? Thirty years ago, I would have said no. Now I think the answer is yes. And I think the reason is conservative talk radio.

I had a weekend hiking partner in the early to mid nineties. He had, as long as I'd known him, not been politically inclined. He drove a semi truck and still does. I noticed, as we walked and talked, that he was becoming ever more conservative in his thinking. But it wasn't just conservative thought of the traditional variety. It was an amped-up version. His speech was now peppered with references to "Libs", and "Environmental Whackos" and "FemiNazis". I was still listening to a mix of rock radio, NPR and The Michael Jackson Show. I was surprised at how suddenly obsessed he'd become with politics, and how firmly he'd landed on the side of the Right. We socialized frequently, and I would see him at barbeques holding forth from a conservative stance ... and debating quite capably if somewhat abrasively.

After several months of this, I happened upon the Rush Limbaugh show, and listened for a couple of hours. There I heard the same stuff my friend had been spouting, right down to the dismissive name-calling. It was amazing. Here was a guy I'd never heard of openly ridiculing the President of the United States. Not just criticizing, ridiculing! He was doing a day-by-day count-down of what he called the "Clinton Occupation". I became fascinated, and over a few months' time listened to maybe fifty hours of the program. In doing, I encountered a cynical but extremely talented broadcaster, and came to realize that a powerful propagandist had gained a foothold in the American consciousness.

His has now been the top-rated radio show in the U.S. for most of 2 decades. The so-called, "Gingrich Revolution" which saddled Clinton's second term with a Republican house, was really the Limbaugh revolution. Limbaugh, and his army of imitators, had delivered Republican voters in shocking numbers.

These radio mercenaries worked largely from the same script. Services emerged that scanned news items looking for anything that could be held up as evidence of the stupidity endemic to the Left. A seven-year-old boy in Florida was suspended for sexual harassment when he kissed a classmate against her will. This story was used again and again, and then built into arguments highlighting the idiocy of left-wing policies for years. It still comes up. These stories morph from one isolated incident to being emblematic of the thinking of millions of people. i.e. "These people are teaching our children! The kind of people who throw a little boy out of school for kissing a girl." This and a thousand other stories; spun and distributed across the nation's airwaves for the purpose of demonstrating how serious a threat to the American way of life was posed by these effete, college-programmed Libs. Because, threatened people will tune in tomorrow. And ratings will follow.

This is not to deny that there are problems on the Left. But this huge growth in right-wing political radio call-in shows is not nearly as fired by those problems as it is by the quest for the high salaries and large audiences available to the hosts who manage to go national. Limbaugh, still the big dog, makes at least $50 million annually. More than $66 grand every hour. But it isn't just the money. It is also the evolved-in desire to WIN. The human urge to competition. This part of it burns in the hearts of listeners that stand to make not a penny.

The Right has always claimed that main-stream media has a bias toward the Left. The Left, of course, denies this. Independent research, though, has shown that the universities and journalism schools that produce the reporters and anchor-people of the major networks are staffed overwhelmingly by Democrats. This doesn't prove bias, but it does make it likely. The same biases are more apparent on the editorial pages of the dominant big-city newspapers. It would be difficult to watch the campaign coverage of Obama's run for the White House and not notice that he was being treated with deference. Hey, I like the guy. I voted for the guy. But I can't deny that he was given the kid-glove treatment when covered by the major networks, just as he was boosted by the big-city editors.

So there has been, for decades, at least a slight leftward bias in the mainstream media. The "Lame-Stream Media" as Sarah Palin calls it. PBS and NPR, partially supported by tax dollars, have also been long identified as left leaning. So there was some evidence to support the notion that a progressive agenda has been gradually foisted upon our society. And now, the AM talkers were, according to them,  rectifying that situation. That Rush Limbaugh's 15 weekly hours of outright attacks on the Left, were slightly out of proportion to a veiled leftward tilt among mainstream anchors who had our ears for perhaps 90 minutes a week, seemed not to bother the Right.

It took a while for the Left to catch on to the magnitude of the problem, but gradually they began to trade tit for tat. Bill Mahr became popular with a show that, though named Politically Incorrect, rarely was, and John Stewart emerged on late night basic cable, and later, Steven Colbert. These three comedians and their writers had no more scruples than did the AM talkers when it came to filtering and spinning stories to fit their agendas. Air America took to wobbly flight and buzzed around for a while on weak-signal stations here and there. Limbaugh's ilk was amused.

Fox News became a TV extension of Limbaugh's movement, and soon MSNBC copied its model with the rhetoric reversed. And onto this roiling sea sailed a million bloggers. Everybody wanted in on the action. Facebook arrived and made it easy to post links and comment upon these blogs, online columns, and videos, and that is just what people did. By the millions.

A couple of weeks ago, Newt Gingrich made a speech in which he spoke of very poor people growing up in situations where they see nobody going to work, and don't, as a result, develop the habit of work. This clip was blogged about widely, and posted countless times to Facebook. I read maybe a hundred of the comments that arrived on my news feed. They were overwhelmingly vicious toward Newt. He was called racist dozens of times that I saw, though he made no mention of race. He was accused over and over of blaming poor children for their poverty because they were lazy. Never mind that, if anything, Gingrich was absolving those children of responsibility for their circumstances, blaming not them, but a lack of role models. He was even accused of promoting a new slavery when he suggested that we ought to put young people to work. Work, in this case, being seen as a horrible thing to ask of someone.

Though not a Gingrich supporter, I tried to stand up for the guy, as fairness is still my unfashionable ideal, and was immediately set upon by a flock of Facebook crows calling me a shill for the racists, and even a probable Klansman. And these are Democrats ... the party of gentle kind-hearted souls.

So this is roughly the way we got here. Once we got our news from sources that, though subject to the same frailties and prejudices of the humans that ran them, at least tried to be objective. Anything that called itself a news source, but was known to filter and spin the stories to support an agenda was considered 'yellow' journalism, and rightly denied respectability.

An evening newscast might end with a commentary, but it was clearly labeled as such, and was written and delivered with care. A journalist's reputation, and earning ability, hinged on his or her credibility, and that had everything to do with being accurate and controlling one's own biases. There are still those who hold themselves to that standard, perhaps as many as ever. The difference is that there are now many more who do not. And these, this new army of verbal guerrilla fighters, are in a lot more ears for a lot more hours.

And the candidates on both sides know it. McCain had long been denounced by Limbaugh as a RINO. He'd been too willing to work across the aisle. In Limbaugh's world, compromise is for sissies and only total victory is acceptable. He'd been trashing McCain for years. Now through a weird series of missteps by his opponents, the Arizona moderate was the GOP candidate. How could he win? He'd be running against a talented and charismatic man who happened to be black. The Left was giddy at the prospect of proving out their inclusive bona-fides by electing the first African American to the White House. There would be a large Democratic turnout. And the crucial independent vote would probably lean toward Obama as well because, in spite of the fantasies of the hard Left and Right, the man was running center-Left, right in the sweet spot for at least half of the middle. All that was left for McCain was to quickly re-invent himself as a Limbaugh Conservative.

Listen closely to Sarah Palin sometime. Why couldn't she name the print news sources that help shape her thinking? Because her thinking is shaped by radio talk-show hosts. That's why. (KENI-AM Anchorage) Did McCain choose Palin because he thought her a particularly astute thinker, or was wowed by her impressive half-stint in the Alaska statehouse? Nope. I have no animus toward Ms. Palin, but it is clear to me why she was elevated to the national political scene. McCain's people brought in Sarah Palin because she is attractive and speaks fluent Limbaugh-ese. They knew that she would gather AM talk radio listeners to the campaign simply because the stuff she'd say would sound so familiar. Rush, and his army of dopplegangers did what they could to backpedal their negativity toward McCain but it came off as false. They knew their leader was holding his nose. He couldn't get the old fire up, and could therefore not ignite his listeners. They were, in spite of their mass-crush on the moose-hunter of the north, a disheartened bunch. A lot of them stayed home that November.

But Rush Limbaugh and his many well-paid knock-offs got their feet back under them. Obama, when he should have been obsessively battling job loss, went all-in over health care reform. Suddenly "big government" and "socialism" were back on every conservative tongue like the sweet taste of childhood candy. And if they were momentarily afraid to openly hate Obama, they could sure hate the very pale Reid and Pelosi. It was gonna be okay. Rush and his minions got the people back on their adrenalin feed, and the outrage blew up like a warm breeze off the prairie. And once the rhetoric was back to its proper level, then the Lefties cranked theirs up to match, and cacophony was once again restored to our great nation.

And by the mid-term elections, another wrinkle had developed. If there'd been Limbaugh voters in the previous congressional overthrow, there were now Limbaugh CANDIDATES. Watch a video of Christine McDonald falling apart under questions about the constitution she claimed to stand for. It was clear she'd never read the thing. Her political notions had been fed to her. I think we all know by whom. Would she have ever gone into politics had Rush Limbaugh's influence not been so present? She flamed out, but enough of the so-called Tea Party candidates did get sent to Washington to guarantee a dead-lock. And how did the Tea Party message get out? Conservative talk radio. He did it again, folks.

Rush Limbaugh has been controlling the discussion in this country for twenty years. His listeners not only vote as he's convinced them to, but carry the message everywhere they go. Republicans have been forced to move ever farther right to attract these people and stay in Rush's good graces. On the other side, the talkers of the Left have adjusted their styles to match the Limbaugh model in everything but the specifics of content. There too, the most aggressive and colorful command the largest audiences.

How can a president possibly succeed on this battlefield? If Obama moves left, he validates everything his detractors claim. If he moves at all right, his own supporters scream "Deserter!" and open fire on him themselves. If he tries to hold the center, he's accused of having no spine, no real political values. He's basically screwed. As are the congress-people who have constituents to face. As are we all.

This is a very large and pluralistic country. Our political system was fashioned by smart people who knew that if America was ever to be a well populated and important place, that those people would come from a diverse collection of countries, and bring with them a wide spectrum of traditions. Out of this, they knew we would have to forge some sort of national identity that was stronger than our differences. The system they built was designed to FORCE compromise, not eliminate it. Failure to compromise stalls the engine. That's what we have now, a big stalled bus full of people blaming one another for what all of us have done.

I believe that a lot of lively debate ought to go on, and that everybody ought to at least try to move things in the direction of their own values. And not just people who agree with me. But also, that lively debate ought always to be aimed TOWARD eventual compromise, not away from it. On both sides of the aisle, compromise has come to mean "getting the other guys to give up something". None of us will ever get everything we want. Ever. Why would anybody want to attach himself to a plan guaranteed to fail? For conviction? Refusing to budge is not strength of conviction ... it's a temper-tantrum.

What say we all brush up on our compromising skills and show the folks on both far ends of the political spectrum what real patriots look like?

Dave Morrison ... January 26, 2012

(P.S. Here are the top ten rated radio talk shows according to Talkers magazine. Dr. Laura is now gone. The rest except for Ed Schultz are all overt conservatives. By comparison, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart averages just about 2 million viewers, half-hour show four nights a week.)


  1. I'm neither American nor have I visited but I'm keenly interested in American culture. I recently came across Rush Limbaugh's 'See I told you so' at a second hand store and picked it up on a whim. If his talk shows are half as convincing as his arguments in print, I can certainly understand why his listeners tend to not just follow, but spread the word (aggressively). Its hard not to feel guilty when admitting it, but your observation about blue collar workers being more likely to vote republican also rings true because that's exactly the kind of audience I would imagine would buy this shtick. The problem with the 'libs' on the other hand is that they're too ashamed of how middle class they are to actively do anything about a cause. This is going to be a tricky election for the US that will determine the next twenty years worth of direction, I'd say. And no pressure, but this time the whole world really is watching, just waiting to judge because we're so much more interconnected than ever economically.

    1. Thanks for your smart comments. Where are you from?