The Right's Sledgehammers

Conor Friedersdorf

When Internet radio host D.R. Tucker alerted me to an interview he recorded with Jonah Goldberg a couple weeks back, I had no idea it would contain one of the more revealing accounts of what the National Review Editor-At-Large really thinks about the conservative movement's bomb thrower talk radio types. (Transcript of relevant segment here.) I'd always imagined that he and I would be utterly at odds on that subject. As it turns out our assessments overlap.

The initial example discussed in the segment is Mark Levin. To my surprise, Goldberg noted that the nationally syndicated talk radio host has said "awful things" at his expense, pointed out that he's "constantly ripping into" Stephen Hayes at The Weekly Standard, and expressed bafflement at his "minor war on National Review." It's rare and gratifying for a prominent voice in movement conservatism to acknowledge that Levin's rhetoric is baffling and that he serially launches unfair attacks.

Does he therefore hurt conservatism? Goldberg doesn't think so:

The problem is that Mark Levin – his myriad talents and successes notwithstanding – is not the pope of conservatism. And the reality is that very very few people listen to Mark Levin who don’t already agree with Mark Levin. The idea that Mark Levin is doing some profound damage to the country or the conservative movement rests on the idea that there are all these liberals tuning in who would otherwise be persuaded by Bill Buckley, but instead are being turned off by Mark. I don’t buy the logic of it.

Isn't Goldberg's answer interesting? His mind immediately goes to the David Frum critique of talk radio: that the overheated rhetoric of its blowhard hosts turn off independents. Its arguably true about Rush Limbaugh, whose high profile makes him unique. But whatever you think of the Frum thesis, there are two distinct arguments about how talk radio hurts conservatism that Goldberg never seems to consider.

1) It's damaging when someone within an ideological movement regularly launches baffling, intemperate attacks on ideological allies. It's strange to me that Goldberg isn't more sympathetic to this argument: he's a movement guy who thinks that Levin is unfairly attacking other guys in the movement; he just doesn't seem willing to say that this is damaging.

2) Then there's the case I'd make against talk radio – not just Mark Levin, but Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck too, among others. That they hurt the conservative movement isn't something that bothers me. It's now a corrupt moneymaking enterprise more than a vehicle for principled political gains. What bothers me is that talk radio hosts hurt conservatism the political philosophy. They do so by willfully misinforming its natural constituency. Every single day, the people I've mentioned broadcast shows that are rife with factual inaccuracies and poorly reasoned if emotionally resonant arguments.

The effect is what you'd expect when people of any kind are constantly fed bad information: they become less adept at advancing the valuable insights that they retain, and even worse at identifying and improving the flaws in their belief system.

With this in mind, consider the argument that Goldberg makes when he turns to talk radio hosts in general:

My position on the conservative movement is that different people need to do different things. As I put it in that C-Span interview, it’s not the best analogy, but if you’ve got to tear down a house and replace it with another one, you need some guys with sledgehammers and earth movers, those are the people like Levin and Glenn Beck, some of those guys. But you also need people who do the fine carpentry and detail work. The way Bill Buckley or George Will or Charles Krauthammer might, or the guys at the Claremont Review of Books. It’s like a symphony. You need the string instruments and you need the percussion.

And there are all these people who think it’s up to conservatives to get rid of the percussion section because it’s too loud. And I don’t buy that. I think you need some people whose job it is to buck up and be cheerleaders for our own side. And you need some people who are going to be kind of Jesuitical proselytizers for conservatism, and go out among the masses and try to convert them.

In one way, it's admirably forthright to acknowledge that listening to Levin and Beck is akin to turning a wrecking crew loose in one's mind – that their supposed utility is their ability to be maximally destructive, and that their work doesn't desserve to be taken as seriously as the stuff produced by the Buckelys and Wills and Krauthammers of the world. It isn't often that you'll hear someone like Goldberg publicly acknowledge as much, though opinions like his are expressed in private all the time.

What I'd ask is that the folks on the right who take his position reassess the costs and benefits of the strategy they're endorsing. The staunch conservatives who make up the majority of the Levin, Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh audiences do not require a demolition crew to tear down liberalism's excesses on their behalf. They find it cathartic and entertaining, but they'd be antagonistic to the left even absent their daily dose of sledgehammers, and plenty of intellectually honest, tonally temperate conservatives are capable of airing informantion and arguments. (I've yet to hear a conservative who insists on the importance of Limbaugh and Fox News answer the observation that the Reagan Revolution happened without either. And that the rise of a parallel conservative media has coincided with a series of policy disasters for the right.)

Note too that talk radio hosts aren't merely doing demolition work against the left, as Goldberg's analogy implies: using few tools save their sledgehammers, they're also engaged in influencing the outcome of primary elections, informing their audiences about the news of the day, pressuring GOP Congressmen on various matters, weighing in on the details of policy, and drawing the bounds of ideologically acceptable discourse. Daily factual errors, pathologically outsized egos, and poorly reasoned arguments are not compatible with doing these things well.

Even if you believe that politics requires angry shouting against ideological adversaires, consider that it is possible to shout without lying – to forcefully rail against the excesses and errors of your opponents without resorting to bad facts or fallacy-filled arguments.

Those who insist on keeping right-wing talk radio hosts around should at least demand better from them. Criticize them for getting facts wrong. Mock them when they make bad arguments – they'll start making better ones. ("You could have a steam train/if you'd just lay down your tracks!") Their intellectual dishonesty and lazyness will manifest itself even less frequently if it's bad for ratings. In a single generation, the conservative movement has gone from counting William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman as its most effective, popular advocates, to throwing in with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity. It's time to stand athwart history yelling stop.