At Large July/August 2004

I Agree With Me

When was the last time a conservative talk show changed a mind?

Last year, on a long car trip, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh shout. I usually agree with Rush Limbaugh; therefore I usually don't listen to him. I listen to NPR: "World to end—poor and minorities hardest hit." I like to argue with the radio. Of course, if I had kept listening to Limbaugh, whose OxyContin addiction was about to be revealed, I could have argued with him about drugs. I don't think drugs are bad. I used to be a hippie. I think drugs are fun. Now I'm a conservative. I think fun is bad. I would agree all the more with Limbaugh if, after he returned from rehab, he'd shouted (as most Americans ought to), "I'm sorry I had fun! I promise not to have any more!"

Anyway, I couldn't get NPR on the car radio, so I was listening to Rush Limbaugh shout about Wesley Clark, who had just entered the Democratic presidential-primary race. Was Clark a stalking horse for Hillary Clinton?! Was Clark a DNC-sponsored Howard Dean spoiler?! "He's somebody's sock puppet!" Limbaugh bellowed. I agreed; but a thought began to form. Limbaugh wasn't shouting at Clark, who I doubt tunes in to AM talk radio the way I tune in to NPR. And "Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop!" was not a call calculated to lure Democratic voters to the Bush camp. Rush Limbaugh was shouting at me.

Me. I am a little to the right of ... Why is the Attila comparison used? Fifth-century Hunnish depredations on the Roman Empire were the work of an overpowerful executive pursuing a policy of economic redistribution in an atmosphere of permissive social mores. I am a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh. I'm so conservative that I approve of San Francisco City Hall marriages, adoption by same-sex couples, and New Hampshire's recently ordained Episcopal bishop. Gays want to get married, have children, and go to church. Next they'll be advocating school vouchers, boycotting HBO, and voting Republican.

I suppose I should be arguing with my fellow right-wingers about that, and drugs, and many other things. But I won't be. Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, has gone out of fashion with conservatives. The formats of their radio and television programs allow for little measured debate, and to the extent that evidence is marshaled to support conservative ideas, the tone is less trial of Socrates than Johnnie Cochran summation to the O.J. jury. Except the jury—with a clever marketing strategy—has been rigged. I wonder, when was the last time a conservative talk show changed a mind?

This is an argument I have with my father-in-law, an avid fan of such programs. Although again, I don't actually argue, because I usually agree with my father-in-law. Also, he's a retired FBI agent, and at seventy-eight is still a licensed private investigator with a concealed-weapon permit. But I say to him, "What do you get out of these shows? You already agree with everything they say."

"They bring up some good points," he says.

"That you're going to use on whom? Do some of your retired-FBI-agent golf buddies feel shocked by the absence of WMDs in Iraq and want to give Saddam Hussein a mulligan and let him take his tee shot over?"

And he looks at me with an FBI-agent look, and I shut up. But the number and popularity of conservative talk shows have grown apace since the Reagan Administration. The effect, as best I can measure it, is nil. In 1988 George Bush won the presidency with 53.4 percent of the popular vote. In 2000 Bush's arguably more conservative son won the presidency with a Supreme Court ruling.

A generation ago there wasn't much conservatism on the airwaves. For the most part it was lonely Bill Buckley moderating Firing Line. But from 1964 to 1980 we went from Barry Goldwater's defeat with 38.5 percent of the popular vote to Ronald Reagan's victory with 50.8 percent of the popular vote. Perhaps there was something efficacious in Buckley's—if he'll pardon the word—moderation.

I tried watching The O'Reilly Factor. I tried watching Hannity shout about Colmes. I tried listening to conservative talk radio. But my frustration at concurrence would build, mounting from exasperation with like-mindedness to a fury of accord, and I'd hit the OFF button.

I resorted to books. You can slam a book shut in irritation and then go back to the irritant without having to plumb the mysteries of TiVo.

My selection method was unscientific. Ann Coulter, on the cover of Treason, has the look of a soon-to-be-ex wife who has just finished shouting. And Bill O'Reilly is wearing a loud shirt on the cover of Who's Looking Out for You?

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