The death of Rush Limbaugh triggered a minor national conversation about his influence on conservatives in the United States. Over the course of his time in politics, a party – which purportedly appealed to mild-mannered bankers, communist-fearing suburbanites and George HW Bush “stay the course” types – was set on edge. According to Jeff Hurvitz at the Courier Times:
[Limbaugh’s] success on the nations’ various stations allowed the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Dennis Prager, Mark Levin and others to rise in syndication. Many teetering AM stations began to thrive, conservatives had whole stations of their own and the nation had the foundation for views that had previously been subdued.
Soon everything was an outrage. The early 90s airwaves were a warzone, a generation of loud-talking new voices were on the blitz to rescue an “America held hostage,” changing the U.S. media balance of power forever. But what has been missed in the recent dialog is Limbaugh’s effect on his opponents and the center. These impacts are important for considering how to unite people to new causes and find new paths forward in the political system.
Rush was well-liked by Democratic voters too. He was fun. His jingle was great and his show had energy. His often-offensive refrains hooked listeners in to laugh at what would have been taboo in other conversations. His show reached across the aisle in a fake unity, as people from both sides of the political aisle tuned in for Rush’s infectious sense of humor. The show wasn’t primarily about politics, it was about ridicule and mockery. But over time this created a centroid of ridicule and mockery about important issues that deserve serious consideration and discussion. This was a part – and historians can weigh in on the consequentiality – of a breakdown in real intersection and trust across the aisle, as evidenced by polls on voters and congressional voting records.
A line can clearly be drawn from Limbaugh’s blustery argumentation through the swaggering campaign of an elite Northeasterner play-acting as a down-to-earth Texan George W. Bush, a desperate and insincere appeal to evangelicals in the John McCain and Sarah Palin campaign and whatever the Trump years were.
“Limbaugh’s show (and others like it) created a centroid of ridicule and mockery about important issues that deserve serious consideration and discussion, part of a breakdown in real intersection and trust across the aisle.”
His impact can also be seen in the response to these actions. Part of the support for Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated campaigns may be seen as an understandable desire to stick it to Rush for the animosity he had for her as expressed during the Clinton effort to reform health insurance in the 90s. This led to a series of failures.
In this same context, shows based on basic disrespect for politics – like “The Daily Show” or “The Onion” – grew in the years of George W Bush as the system became less and less respectable amidst the war in Iraq and multiple economic crises. But responding to a broken system with mockery was not much of a solution. In fact, empty humor can create a dynamic in which genuine criticism is rarer, and the energy for real change is harder to come by. Would you invest the time to fix a system that is worth nothing more than a laugh?
New parties and platforms need to forge a path that doesn’t take us into the void. The race-to-the-bottom and lesser-of-two-evils dynamics we see in electoral politics today are not simply a consequence of winner-take-all voting and the two-party duopoly. They are also based on basic distrust of the capacity for change and the possibility of a path forward. New movements among young activists and writers may succeed – and can only succeed – when they find genuine cross-connection on images and issues that unite groups toward common ideals.
Fake images and ideas brand themselves onto their times and places and die out, long after overstaying their welcome. A genuine political movement has to be grounded in real issues – people, families, workers and social relationships. The fake commons of our recent past did intentional and consensual damage to our political system, the people it serves and its own capacity to reform. Moving past the damage done over the last generation will be a multi-generational project. Young families have had their inheritance of basic economic security and well-being blotted out as our forebears shouted and laughed. The challenge now is to begin to assemble the capabilities to move forward in broad common movements without foundering in the void.
By Justin Wozniak
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