Rush and the American Right

Writing in response to Rush Limbaugh's remarks on our book, Reihan compared El Rushbo to Oprah Winfrey, and I think the Times profile of Limbaugh this weekend's Times Magazine confirms that insight. The piece paints Rush, accurately I think, as a fascinating and enormously talented entertainer, a guy who addresses the anxieties, aspirations and prejudices of put-upon, middle-class white men in much the same way Oprah speaks to the anxieties, aspirations and prejudices of angsty middle-aged white women. If Oprah is selling, in myriad ways, a particular (and particularly American) worldview - one defined by self-help and sisterhood and spirituality - then so is Rush: He's a voice for a self-reliant, up-by-your-bootstraps vision of American life, in which perpetual material abundance is available to anyone willing to work for it, and people who insist that there are limits to growth just don't understand what the U.S. of A is capable of.

The major difference between the two, of course, is that Rush's worldview has explicit political implications - a suspicion of regulators and taxmen and bureaucracies of any kind, a hatred of political correctness and sex- or race-based victimology - whereas the politics of Oprahland are (usually, though not always) implicit. In this sense, the absolute best parallel to Rush in the cultural firmament is probably Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show is to the weltanschauung of bright young East Coast liberals what the Rush Limbaugh Show is to the worldview of their SUV-driving, self-made uncles out in flyover country.

What does this mean for Rush's relationship to Republican politics? Just this: In the same way that every ambitious Democratic politician ought to be attuned to how Jon Stewart covers the news, so every right-of-center politico should keep an ear to the portion of the dial where Rush holds forth - because the Limbavian worldview, and the people he speaks for, represents an important (and valuable) slice of American conservatism, and indeed of America itself. But those same politicians should remember, as too many conservatives seem wont to forget, that Limbaugh is first and foremost an entertainer, and to mistake him for a strategist or policy wonk or political philosopher is to make a category error of epic proportions. Letting Rush define who is and is not a conservative, or what the national GOP can and cannot stand for, is the equivalent of the Democratic Party inviting the writers of the Daily Show to hammer out their party's platform - or the Roman Catholic Church turning the next edition of the Catechism over to Oprah.