Until the rise of Rush Limbaugh, talk-show hosts and callers were pretty much ignored by the people who regard themselves as the guardians of Correct Thought. They seemed to regard talk shows as forums for the intellectually deprived, unworthy of attention from the ivory tower set. As we all know, this situation has changed markedly in recent years, and in fact people like Limbaugh, Gordon Liddy, and me are accused of all sorts of things these days. The President himself says it is awful that anybody be given several hours a day on the radio to say just what he thinks without contradiction. He was referring to ol’ Rush, who has been a sharp thorn in Clinton’s side for some time now. Of course, it is risky to attack the idol of millions of people, most of whom, one would assume, vote. Rush has a way of making his critics pay a price. After the New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen made an unflattering reference to him. Rush perused, parsed, and, yes, ridiculed every subsequent Quindlen column for quite a while. Since she is a solipsistic liberal of the Ellen Goodman school of personalized jabberings, her writings are quite easily ridiculed. So, I might add, are Mr. Clinton’s foibles.
One of the things about talking on radio for a living is that you have to defend what you say every step of the way. Challenges to your conclusions are not filtered through the letters-to-the-editor department. This is the chief reason, in my opinion, why liberal talk-show hosts come across so badly when discussing political or social matters.
If Bill Clinton had a talk show, chances are his famed approach of seeming to agree with everyone he talks to would wear thin pretty quickly. When you run a talk show, you have to say what you really believe. There is no staffer to hand you an index card with the appropriate words on it. In my case, there is no staff at all. So if I cannot muster a goodly amount of evidence to support my points, I look foolish. As a talk-show host, you have to sustain your arguments spontaneously and be able to defend yourself against attacks from different directions. There is no time for rewrite. You have to have the facts right there at hand, muster your arguments, and be judged by the quantity and quality of the audience you are able to attract. This is why some hardheaded conservatives do so well in the job. They are sustained by having facts and history and reality on their side. Liberals have an empty quiver. Their arrows have all been fired and have missed their mark. Liberal nostrums have not worked. We live at the end of the Age of the Welfare State, which can no longer be afforded, and those of us who understand this reality are opposed to the statist insistence that this is not so. Here we are, debating national health care at the very same time that European states are facing the necessity of cutting back on welfare benefits, particularly the universal one: free health care.
Talk shows, along with the “religious right,” stand accused by an assortment of left-leaning politicians and their servants in the press of fostering what the pundits like to call a “corrosive cynicism” among ordinary Americans toward their government. Seldom have so many editorials been generated as when the President complained about the criticism he received on a St. Louis radio station. The truth is, we are not generating dissatisfaction with government. What makes the people cynical is what the people with real authority are doing to this country, not what the critics are saying about it. What breeds greater cynicism. Bill Clinton’s repudiation of numerous campaign promises or Rush Limbaugh’s comments on these broken promises? Criticism of Whitewater chicanery or Henry Gonzales’ stonewalling the House investigation of Whitewater? Moreover, the cynicism worsens when the Establishment media play political football with the facts, as when Washington journalists and Beltway talking heads made endless excuses for Dan Rostenkowski’s actions. My own view is that the growth of cynicism can hardly keep pace with the lies and shenanigans deserving of cynicism. The right, both religious and secular, through talk radio and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, has found a way to circumvent the political and media elite, and the result is an Establishment on the run.
Anthropologist Jack Weatherford in Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive? argues that the ten-thousand-year epoch of civilization that began with the development of agriculture and continued on through the rise of towns and cities is winding down. What Spengler in his opus saw as the twilight of Western civilization, Weatherford sees as the collapse of global civilization. It is this sense of decline and degeneration that talk radio today reflects and that the Establishment media deny and ignore. This head-in-the-sand approach will not change the course of onrushing reality. The people know that disunity is ascendant and that we desperately need leaders willing to tackle our country’s serious social and cultural problems. It is this realization that accounts for the popularity of Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, the rise of the religious right, and the imminent demise of the secular left.