Friday, October 2, 2009

Becklash

David Brooks laments that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are getting all the attention as the voices of the conservatives.

The Republican Party is unpopular because it’s more interested in pleasing Rush’s ghosts than actual people. The party is leaderless right now because nobody has the guts to step outside the rigid parameters enforced by the radio jocks and create a new party identity. The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer’s niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician’s coalition-building strategy.

The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.

As fond of history that Mr. Brooks is, I’m a bit surprised that he traces the death grip of talk jocks on the Republicans only back to the beginning of the last election cycle. It goes a lot further back than that; the recent cycle is only the latest example of fools rushing in to fill the leadership void on the right, going back to the end of the Reagan administration and their desperate search for someone as dominating, uniting, and mythical as Mr. Reagan was. Like him or not, he was the last real leader from the Right, and everyone who has tried to take the role — Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, just to name a few — has either fallen short or ended up doing more harm than good to their cause. But it’s hard to replace a legend. (By the way, the Democrats haven’t been immune to this, either; they spent a lot of losing election cycles searching for the next FDR or JFK.)

The problem for the Republicans and the conservatives is that they have cultivated and encouraged these kinds of stark gloom-and-doom oh-god-we’re-all-gonna-die prophets, and their political philosophy has played into it: they are so convinced of their bumper-sticker (“Abortion Is Murder”, “Where’s the Birth Certificate?”, “God Created Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve”) rightness that anyone who doubts them is suspected of treason or insanity. The liberals have their own hard-core, but they have never had as much power over their side; progressives are much more prone to compromise (or caving) than conservatives. Thus we have Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the radio 24/7, while the Left has a rumpled Michael Moore coming along every three years with a documentary. (This has historical antecedents; in the 1930’s the right wing had Father Coughlin while the left countered with Upton Sinclair. Guess who got more attention.) It isn’t the message so much as it is the delivery. As Matthew Yglesias points out, the reason Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) got so much attention for his “Die Quickly!” speech on the floor of the House was because he stole the Republicans’ playbook.

Just because someone like Rush Limbaugh is capable of making a lot of noise doesn’t mean he can make a difference or sway the electorate. If you are going to turn politics into entertainment, you have to understand that show business may obsess about ratings and box office take, but you should never mistake them as affirming for intellect or art. Hollywood makes blockbusters like Transformers so that they can also make Julie & Julia, but they don’t confuse the one with the other. (Were that not the case, Police Academy would have walked away with thirteen Oscars and Schindler’s List would never have been made.) It’s a lesson that seems to be lost on the conservatives. Steven F. Hayward, author of The Age of Reagan, worries that the intellectuals have left the party, leaving the birthers in charge and Glenn Beck in place of William F. Buckley.

Okay, so Beck may lack Buckley’s urbanity, and his show will never be confused with “Firing Line.” But he’s on to something with his interest in serious analysis of liberalism’s patrimony. The left is enraged with Beck’s scandal-mongering over Van Jones and ACORN, but they have no idea that he poses a much bigger threat than that. If more conservative talkers took up the theme of challenging liberalism’s bedrock assumptions the way Beck does from time to time, liberals would have to defend their problematic premises more often.

As long as Glenn Beck continues to misspell words like “oligarchy” and holds up a tin of snuff to make a point about the president promoting the Chicago Olympics, I don’t think the liberals have a lot to worry about in terms of defending their premises, problematic or not. That’s too bad; ideas and intellect flourish in a challenging environment. But as the saying goes, it’s useless to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent.