March 2, 2009

On Steele v. Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. First and foremost, he is driven by the need for ratings, to attract ears and eyeballs to his show. He has figured out a product that sells, found a very large niche in the media market, and made a whole hell of a lot of money for himself and a lot of other people filling that niche. That niche is the same one whose desires are fulfilled by Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and the rest of that crew -- red meat to the right wing, socially conservative policy pornography. All emotion, no thought necessary. If there happens to be actual content in the stuff they're selling, well, that's great, but entirely beside the point. What matters is that it makes the conservatives in the audience feel good about themselves, and that it makes the liberals outraged. That's what keeps people tuning in. And while Ann Coulter may be able to produce the most outrageous of this kind of product, no one produces it in the kind of quantity that Limbaugh does.

So when RNC Chariman Michael Steele said "Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh — his whole thing is entertainment. He has this incendiary — yes, it's ugly." I figure, well, yeah. That's right. The point is to be incendiary, that's the kind of entertainment that he's selling. Isn't that obvious?

But, so powerful is the attraction of the rank-and-file social conservatives out there that they considered the remark an insult (and "ugly" is indeed that, because it ignores that Limbaugh is often being deliberately provocative) and in the course of about thirty-six hours, they've managed to pressure Steele into backpedaling off of his remarks. Now, he says, "I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”

Leadership? Since when was this guy a leader of the Republican party? I've never voted for him for anything; I've never even seen his name on a ballot for anything. Limbaugh even says for himself, "I'm not in charge of the Republican Party, and I don't want to be. I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican Party in the sad-sack state that it's in. If I were chairman of the Republican Party, given the state that it's in, I would quit." Which is not quite fair to Steele, given that he only just took over the party chairmanship a few weeks ago and is hardly responsible for the miserable state of the GOP.

For that, I blame first and foremost George W. Bush, the man who while the head of the GOP and the President of the United States singlehandedly did more than anyone since Richard M. Nixon to gently hand the Democrats several large cases of ammunition to fire back at us -- rightly criticizing us on fiscal responsibility, promoting and defending torture, giving our allies the high hat, reflexively saying everything is a secret and you're a traitor for even wondering what we're up to with your money and your government, and generally shredding the Constitution.

Limbaugh, with his unmatched high political profile, chose to spend the bulk of the past eight years reflexively defending everything Bush did. Well, with the exception of the immigration bill. Now, if that's entertainment, that's one thing. But if it's policy, it's something else entirely. There was much, much for conservatives to criticize in the Bush Administration. Starting with its advocacy for and creation of the single largest and most expensive expansion in the social welfare program in the history of the United States, climaxing in the creation of an eleven trillion dollar national debt, and concluding with the creation and implementation of a constitutional theory that would leave the President a king in all but name -- as if no Democrat would ever again win the White House. Oh, and lest I forget, the use of polarizing high-risk, same-reward political tactics that were aimed at winning elections by a fraction of a percent rather than reaching out to the middle, leaving a very substantial risk that Democrats would indeed take charge.

Not all Republicans and not even all conservatives were like that. That should be the point Steele needs to be out there making. But so prominent and beloved is Limbaugh that when Steele even hints at any of this, he gets pushed into eating crow, like this: "It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently. What I was trying to say was a lot of people … want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he’s not."

Well, no, he's not the bogeyman. He's an entertainer, and things he says need to be taken as such. If he says something that makes you think, that's fine. But the whole "dittohead" phenomenon glorifies people abdicating their independent thought and subscribing to a pre-set orthodoxy, joining Limbaugh's amen chorus as if he somehow had all the right answers. Limbaugh himself isn't the problem -- the problem is people who are willing to substitute listening to Limbaugh's show for thinking things through for themselves. This not what any of modern American conservatism's founders, guys like Bill Buckley, Russell Kirk, or Barry Goldwater, would have wanted for their movement, or for America in general.

Nor is this to say that this sort of groupthink is a purely right-wing phenomenon. Lots of it happens on the left side of the aisle, too -- lefties are all supposed to think Barack Obama is the cat's ass right about now, and they're all supposed to be shitting themselves that we're on the precipice of Great Depression II -- but I'm not talking about them right now. They, at least, have the benefit of an actual President leading their party. And if they abandon their capacities for critical thought in favor of blind partisanship (as some of them seem to have done), that's as worthy of withering critique as the Dittoheads are getting here. I keep on hoping that some of them are going to wake up from their post-election drunk and, hung over with the reality that oh, shit, he's just a politician after all, they'll re-adopt a healthy cynicism and start thinking about good policy again. I'm bound to be disappointed in those hopes -- it's just not in their nature.

But this post is about how the top-ranking guy in the Republican Party got backed into eating his words about Rush Limbaugh, giving dangerous credibility to the rather effective criticism of Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that the GOP is really the Limbaugh party.

Now, ever since about November 2, Limbaugh and his acolytes have quite quickly re-discovered the importance of fiscal responsibility by the Federal government, the value of checks and balances on Presidential power, and the need to reach out to people who are skeptical of the government's exercise of power. Who knows, maybe in two years or so they'll once again come to understand why the Courts are important, too. Well, what the hell were you doing six months ago when people like me were saying that the party's candidate needed to make a clean break from the Bush Administration? Spanking off to pictures of Sarah Palin aiming a rifle, that's what.

Come on, Dittohead readers. I challenge you to find me one position Limbaugh has pushed for on his show for any appreciable length of time with which you disagree. I dare you. Tell me, have you ever once said to yourself, "Rush, goddamn it, you're wrong about that and you have been for years!" You won't be able to do this, because you've been indoctrinated into the Cult of Rush, and anyone who dares utter any contrary statement, or level any criticism of Limbaugh, is castigated as somehow not a real conservative. Of if you can think of something, you're probably too scared to admit it in public in a way that your right-wing friends might be able to trace back to you and label you as an apostate.

Which, I suppose, is why I've come to resist having that label attached to me these days. In the meantime, I say Steele was right the first time -- Limbaugh is not a leader of the Republican party, and he ought not to be considered as such. He's an entertainer. He sells entertainment in the form of outrage, not serious policy proposals or political ideas. He's no leader of mine; I take no cues from him. And neither should you. If you want to listen and be entertained, that's fine. If you hear something on his show that makes you start thinking, that's cool, too -- whether you wind up agreeing with Limbaugh or not, that's cool -- as long as you aren't just regurgitating pubilc policy pablum.

If you delegate your responsibility to think to someone else, you're abdicating your citizenship. And, in the end, playing into the hands of your adversaries.


zzi said...

Dear Volunteers,

This is what passes for being a conservative in Southern California.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

That comment pretty much proves this point:

...anyone who dares utter any contrary statement, or level any criticism of Limbaugh, is castigated as somehow not a real conservative.

I hereby name ZZI a deacon in the Cult of Rush.