The talk radio host's advice to the right: If the American public wants a balanced approach to deficit reduction, just steal their words
On talk radio, public opinion is seldom acknowledged when it runs against the dogmas of movement conservatism. So Rush Limbaugh surprised me this week at the beginning of a segment: "Okay, Americans want the new debt super committee to compromise," he said. "Americans want leaders, they want results, they want stability, says Gallup in the latest poll." It's a data-point that the right must confront. The debt-ceiling negotiations left President Obama unpopular but turned public opinion against House Republicans too. The implications for 2012 are obvious.
How to confront them?
Were Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, or Ronald Reagan behind the microphone, they'd perhaps stand firm on the contention that tax increases are unacceptable, but they'd go on to explain the alleged flaw in public opinion, using arguments pitched to win over skeptics. That's how healthy ideological movements work: Eventually you either persuade people you're right, or you lose.
What Limbaugh said next is an illustration of how an unhealthy ideological movement works. His strategy: Orwellian word games.
We should just call debt reduction and cutting government a balanced approach. We just redefine the term! We just start using the terms "balanced approach" and "compromise" and say debt reduction and cutting government is what we're talking about. That's our balanced approach: Cut government, reduce debt. If Obama can do that for massive taxing and spending and borrowing, we can do it, too. Obama poll tests these phrases, I have no doubt, and I'm sure they're polling well, because he keeps using it.
Okay, so let's go ahead and steal their success and just start redefining the terms. It'll never happen, I know. Folks, this is just me whistling Dixie. It's never going to happen. It makes too much sense. It'd require too much commitment here. But it would really tick 'em off, 'cause they think they own "balanced approach." They think they own "compromise." We ought to just take the terms, since apparently they test well, and just redefine 'em. Balanced approach: Debt reduction, and cut government! Makes perfect sense. It won't happen. But that's what I would do.
What's wrong here?
1) It's never a good sign when a popular entertainer admits to his audience that if he had his way, he'd brazenly resort to the propagandist's tool kit. Among other things, it shows that blatant intellectual dishonesty is consciously condoned by the community, which is a step beyond failing to perceive it.
2) Limbaugh is reassuring his listeners that any success the other side has is due to its talent for finding buzzwords that test well in polls. In reality, Americans are communicating something of substance when they assert that they want "balance" and "compromise." There is, in fact, very specific information about what exactly American voters want in that very same Gallup poll.
One can agree or disagree with voter desires, go along with public opinion or try to change it, but it is foolhardy to just pretend that areas where public opinion and conservative orthodoxy diverge require no more than simplistic branding efforts from the right. This is a particular shame because the super committee has been designed so that everyone is better off if a compromise is reached.
Should the committee fail, the resulting triggers ensure that both sides still give something up, they're just less able to influence which priorities of theirs are compromised. In reality, it's only professional peddlers of polarization like Limbaugh who benefit if everyone continues to treat what transpires as a zero sum game. Perhaps that explains why he wants to obscure rather than grapple with reality.
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