The beginning of CPAC is probably as good a time as any to talk about John Derbyshire’s American Conservative cover story about conservative talk radio. I’m a frequent — and grateful! — guest on talk radio. I remember what a breath of fresh air Rush Limbaugh was when he first hit the national scene. As I mentioned in my tribute to David Brudnoy, I spent the summer of 1994 glued to talk radio.
To some extent, I think Derbyshire’s complaints about “Happy Meal conservatism” and “ideological comfort food” are really complaints with the popularization of conservatism. When conservatism was primarily an intellectual movement rather than a political one or even a niche market, when “Firing Line” was the most popular conservative broadcast, the right was pretty small. It is now, even in its current attenuated form, much larger, a real mass movement of sorts. Conservative talk show hosts are doing what they are supposed to do and offering a kind of political commentary that is bound to appeal to more people than readings from Edmund Burke.
That said, it seemed that in the 1990s conservative talk radio was good at tapping into a sense of outrage that benefited Republicans. This still goes on, but has at least partly been replaced with an echo chamber effect. I can’t tell you how many of my conservative friends who primarily get their news from talk radio and Fox were genuinely shocked when the Republicans lost the 2006 elections. Many of them were surprised again when Barack Obama beat John McCain, even though polls clearly showed that this was the likelier outcome for most of the year. (But those were liberally biased polls! And Republicans don’t have landlines! And they lie to liberally biased, landline-calling pollsters!)
The downside to what Derbyshire calls “ideological comfort food” is that it blinds you to what the outside world thinks. Now, even that’s not always a bad thing — on a whole host of issues, from Obama’s designs on our health care system, to the vast increases in federal spending anticipated by the Democrats, to the laundry list of bailouts, nationalizations, and stimuli on the horizon — the people behind the microphones are right and a majority of the American people are wrong (depending on which poll you believe). But can people who speak in movement-ese, all red-team all the time without nuance, persuade that majority they are wrong?
I think it is a stretch to blame talk radio for the right’s problems — and Derbyshire, in his judicious piece, doesn’t — and know conservatism would be worse off if it were silenced via the Fairness Doctrine or something like it. But conservatives need a way to reach beyond the base and try to convert some swing voters. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing Sean Hannity ain’t it.