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?

Coulter begins her book thus:

Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Everyone says liberals love America, too. No they don't. Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy.

Now, there's a certain truth in what she says. But it's what's called a "poetic truth." And it's the kind of poetic truth best conveyed late in the evening after six or eight drinks while pounding the bar. I wasn't in a bar. I was in my office. It was the middle of the day. And I was getting a headache.

Who's Looking Out for You? is not as loud as Treason. But there's something of the halftime harangue at the team just in the use of the second-person pronoun.

The answer to O'Reilly's title question could be condensed in the following manner: "Nobody, that's who. The fat cats aren't. The bigwigs aren't. The politicos aren't. Nobody's looking out for you except me, and I can't be everywhere. You've got to look out for yourself. How do you do that? You look out for your friends and family. That's how. And they look out for you. And that's the truth, Bud."

We've all backed away from this fellow while vigorously nodding our heads in agreement. Often the fellow we were backing away from was our own dad.

O'Reilly casts his net wide in search of a nodding, agreeing audience. He embraces people driving poky economy cars ("not imposing gas mileage standards hurts every single American except those making and driving SUVs") and people with romantic memories of the liberalism of yore ("the gold standard for public service was the tenure of Robert Kennedy as attorney general"). He positions himself as a populist worried about illegal aliens' getting across the border and taking our jobs. (I'm worried about illegal aliens' not getting across the border and leaving us with jobs, such as mowing the lawn and painting the house.) And O'Reilly reaches out to the young by prefacing each chapter with lyrics from pop music groups that are, as far as I know, very up-to-date, such as Spandau Ballet. But the person that O'Reilly's shouting at is still, basically, me: "If President Hillary becomes a reality, the United States will be a polarized, thief-ridden nanny state ..."

Does the left have this problem? Do some liberals feel as if they're guarding the net while their teammates make a furious rush at their own goal? NPR seems more whiny than hectoring, except at fundraising time. There's supposed to be a lot of liberal advocacy on TV. I looked for things that debased freedom, promoted license, ridiculed responsibility, and denigrated man and God—but that was all of TV. How do you tell the liberal parts from the car ads? Once more I resorted to books.

To answer my question I didn't even have to open Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. But having done so, I found these chapter headings: "Ann Coulter: Nutcase," "You Know Who I Don't Like? Ann Coulter," and "Bill O'Reilly: Lying Splotchy Bully."

Michael Moore's previous book was Stupid White Men, titled in a spirit of gentle persuasion unmatched since Martin Luther, that original Antinomian, wrote Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Moore's new book, Dude, Where's My Country?, contains ten chapters of fulminations convincing the convinced. However, Moore does include one chapter on how to argue with a conservative. As if. Approached by someone like Michael Moore, a conservative would drop a quarter in Moore's Starbucks cup and hurriedly walk away. Also, Moore makes this suggestion: "Tell him how dependable conservatives are. When you need something fixed, you call your redneck brother-in-law, don't you?"

Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, seems to have gone out of fashion with everyone. I'm reduced to arguing with the radio. The distaste for political argument certainly hasn't made politics friendlier—or quieter, given the amount of shouting being done by people who think one thing at people who think the same thing.

But I believe I know why this shouting is popular. Today's Americans are working harder than ever, trying to balance increasing personal, family, and career demands. We just don't have time to make ourselves obnoxious. We need professional help.