Talk Radio and Changing Minds

Jerry Taylor is one of those folks who says what’s on his mind, popular or not (witness his dissent on Jack Kemp).  Whether you agree with him or vehemently disagree it can be refreshing and interesting, IMO.

Today, he dissents from another hot topic: talk radio and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity in particular.

I am no fan of either. While I will admit to not listening to their shows, the snippets that I have caught over the years have irritated. One can agree with a majority of their vision regarding what constitutes good public policy and who is worthy of my vote while being annoyed by the manner in which their arguments are being made and chagrined by the dubious logic and dodgy evidence being forwarded to buttress their arguments. One can also be driven to frustration by the seemingly endless parade of political red herrings and conspiracy-minded nonsense that I have heard both of them traffic in.

I am certain that charges of “elitist!” will flood my inbox over this. But do either of these guys actually convince anyone (elitist or not) outside of the choir? Limbaugh’s popularity numbers suggest not (are any available for Hannity?). I think P. J. O’Rourke gets it right on this matter.

I don’t want to get into the debate over Taylor’s NYT link but instead focus on the question of whether “either of these guys actually convince anyone (elitist or not) outside of the choir?” And also whether that is the appropriate question.

First, here is how Kathryn Lopez responded to Taylor in the Corner:

Listening to “snippets” of talk radio will never do the job these men do daily justice. Have you listened to countless calls from on-the-fence or outright hostile listeners these guys take? If you have, I doubt you’d dismissively ask “do either of these guys actually convince anyone (elitist or not) outside of the choir?” Everyone loves to say Rush is an “entertainer,” which is absolutely true – he is entertaining – but he’s also a teacher. As I say to young people all the time, listen to him consistently and you hear someone who knows what he believes in. It’s why he’s so adamant that conservatism not be watered down or remade.

Popularity ratings are all fine and good, but more people hear what Rush has to say than know what the Cato Institute (or The Corner, alas!) is saying today. Rush and Sean are incredible assets for the conservative movement. And conservatives ought to appreciate and even celebrate that.

You might not agree with everything. You might do it differently. But I think our time is better spent each doing our part rather than shooting at those who are doing theirs – and successfully.

Now, I have to say up front that I am also not a talk radio listener and I too have mostly found this style of discussion irritating.  While I have a great deal of respect for Rush’s ability to do what he does – and at the highest level for years – I am not really a fan.

And I think there is some wisdom in KLo’s last paragraph.  But I think she is on the wrong foot in the first paragraph.  I am not an expert, nor a dedicated listener, but I think I have listened enough to know that these personalities and shows are not really aimed at winning converts or changing minds.  Do I think they on occasion convince people who don’t consider themselves conservative?  Sure, but I don’t think that is a large part of their focus.

The real job of Rush and Hannity and others is to rally the base; to convince conservatives (and those with similar gut instincts) to stick with it and fight the fight.  Listening to Rush is a dose of confidence for a lot of people.  Hearing him debate lefties and tear apart the de facto liberalism of so much of our politics and culture reminds them that they too have arguments and strategies to fight their opponents.  It is a half-time pep talk while in the car or at work or at home.

And given this fact, I agree with KLo that it is not a good use of our time and energy to be attacking those folks who rally the base and give confidence to those who do much of the ground work for electoral and ideological battles.

What bothers me, however, is some people’s apparent belief that all we need in the arsenal is talk radio style debate and discussion; that if more people acted like Rush conservatism would win in the public square.  There really are people out there – I have encountered a great many – who seem to think if you don’t like Rush you must be some sort of pinko; you can’t be a true conservative unless you listen to talk radio, watch Fox News and attack squishy moderates at every turn.

And this is a question I have been pondering for some time.  Set aside Rush and talk radio.  Set aside blogs and websites – and books and magazines – who do similar “rally the base” type work. Who are the people and organizations who do convince those outside the conservative choir; who successfully change hearts and minds?

I truly do think this is a problem for conservatism and the GOP in this awkward time.  The base wants recognition and more ideological purity – and often deservedly so – while the country isn’t necessarily moving to the right.  There seem to be a lot of people who want to return to conservative basics but don’t have any fresh ideas for how to communicate these ideas and principles in an effective way. (You will excuse me if I don’t see the snark, condescension, and even vulgarity of much online communication, however popular, as filling that gap.)

So how are we to move forward and reach those folks who are persuadable and build a winning coalition? I think Rush Limbaugh does important work in many ways, but he can’t be the only work.  If we are to succeed we will need to find a way to rally the base but also find common ground with non-ideological and even moderate voters.  So let’s move beyond a debate about Rush Limbaugh and start thinking about persuasion and communication.

I hope to add my thoughts in this space in the coming days and months.  If you have ideas please share them.