Let’s now pause to take a moment to render praise to someone who rarely fails to do the same for himself. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the syndication of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. While the date passed largely without notice in much of the media, it is nonetheless a significant milestone that, regardless of whether you love Rush or hate him, deserves to be noted. Though he will never draw the sort of accolades and awards that mainstream media liberals routinely bestow on each other in pompous ceremonies, Limbaugh is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in the history of broadcasting. Though he was hardly the first or the only conservative talker on the air, Limbaugh’s unique mix of biting conservative commentary, humor, and braggadocio helped transform the political landscape of America.
I think there are three main points to be made about Rush on his silver anniversary.
The first is that Rush’s radio revolution was made possible because it filled a void in the world of broadcasting. The 1987 repeal of the so-called fairness doctrine, which hindered the ability of radio stations to run talk shows that operated from a specific point of view, cleared the way for both conservatives and liberals to take to the airwaves. The reason why conservative talk shows succeeded (in Rush’s case on a scale no one could have imagined before he did it) and left-wing hosts have generally flopped is that in a media world where liberals dominated most daily newspapers and all the broadcast television networks there was a huge audience that was dying to hear someone they agreed with. As with the subsequent development of Fox News, Rush’s success was the product of the fact that there was an underserved niche in the market that made up approximately half of the American people who thought of themselves as conservatives.
That factor along with the fact that Rush’s show was both entertaining and always spoke to the news of the day contributed to making it an instant hit. Thinking back on this period of American political history, what is most remarkable is that it wasn’t long after it became nationally syndicated that Limbaugh assumed his current perch as perhaps the most influential radio talker in the country. By the time of the Republican landslide in the 1994 congressional elections, Rush was already an icon of the right and public enemy No. 1 to the left.
What was most disconcerting about Rush’s ascendance to his liberal antagonists was not so much the clever way he parodied objects of his derision like Bill Clinton but the fact that it was quickly apparent that there was no going back to the pre-Limbaugh status quo. Prior to his rise, impudent conservatives had no place on the national spectrum. Talk radio—as well as Fox News on TV, which came along a few years later—changed forever the American public square in which a few liberal talking heads had been the arbiters of what could and could not be said on the air.
The second point to be made about Rush is that notwithstanding his importance in changing the way we think about media and politics, he is not the pope of the Republican Party or the conservative movement.
The left prefers its conservative villains to be as sinister as possible so it was always necessary to account for Rush’s huge audience by portraying him as either being the front man for a dark right-wing conspiracy or as the evil Svengali hypnotizing a docile audience of hayseeds and fools into supporting policies that are against their interests.
But the key to understanding Limbaugh’s perennial appeal is that he has always been a sounding board for conservative sentiment in this country, not its manufacturer. Limbaugh has thrived not by dictating to his audience but because he has followed it and appealed to the issues and stories they care about. To note this fact is not to discount or deny that he is one of the country’s opinion leaders, but it is a mistake to think that what he has done is anything other than provide a platform for the views of his listeners and to appeal to what they think is simple common sense.
Lastly, it is equally a myth to claim that Limbaugh has coarsened the tenor of America’s political debate. Though he has sometimes erred by using misleading terms like “feminazis” and memorably called free contraception advocate Sandra Fluke a “slut” in an awkward effort to skewer her position, most of what Limbaugh says is merely blunt conservatism, often presented with a satirical tone. Most liberals who denounce Limbaugh have probably never actually listened to his show and have little idea of how central humor has always been to his popularity.
What Limbaugh has done is to shoot a great many liberal sacred cows on a regular basis, and that isn’t something the left and its media gatekeepers were ever willing to accept. The notion that he is uniquely disrespectful or nasty is not only a distortion of his own record. It also reflects a stark double standard by which the mainstream media’s dismissal or even slanders of the right are treated as unexceptional while conservative denunciations of liberals are seen as beyond the pale.
Talk radio, like any medium, is a mixed bag. Some of its practitioners bring a lot to the table while some are mere windbags or even dangerous demagogues. Limbaugh is neither of those. His national popularity is a continuing testament both to his talent and to the enduring appeal of his brand. His breakthrough still disconcerts his opponents who long to tell conservatives to shut up. Thanks to Rush that will never happen. Even those Americans who don’t always agree with him should be happy about that.