Twenty-five years ago today, Rush Limbaugh went on the air in New York City and began his syndicated radio show. I believe that Rush has been the most influential figure in American culture over that quarter-century. He helped turn Newt Gingrich into Speaker of the House and then pushed the Republican Party so far to the right it makes Newt look like a compromising moderate. He paved the way for Fox News Channel and an entire genre of conservative talk radio occupied by hundreds of his imitators. For decades, he has single-handedly had a bigger audience than all progressive radio shows combined. He has moved public opinion, convincing millions that global climate change is a fraud even while the scientific evidence has grown more and more overwhelming. He has had presidents carry his bags up to the Lincoln Bedroom and give him a birthday cake in the White House.
In my recent book about Rush, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh's Assault on Reason, I noted:
He ridicules science and mocks intellectual arguments. He makes bigotry more publicly acceptable by his use of racial insults and sexist comments. He destroys the moderate wing of the Republican Party by imposing rigid adherence to his particular brand of conservatism. Rush Limbaugh is dumbing down America and coarsening our culture....Limbaugh is not some random guy who happens to express a political view every now and then; he’s a leader, I would say the leader, of the conservative movement in America, and his views are a powerful force in American politics. Limbaugh mobilizes and inspires the lunatic fringe of the far right. However, his influence extends far beyond the hard core conservatives; he popularizes right-wing ideas to a mass audience of mainstream Republicans and independents. Limbaugh pushes the Republican Party—and American politics—far to the right.So what should progressives do about Rush? The most popular answer, and the worst one, has been to try to drive him off the air. The most successful approach has been to make Rush the face and voice of the Republican Party, and expose just how stupid, bigoted, and unpopular his ideas really are. But ultimately, progressives need to do what Rush himself did: build a media and political movement to bring our ideas to a wider audience.
The unsuccessful effort to drive Rush off the air by the Flush Rush campaign has had one unexpected and highly beneficial side effect: it revealed that companies were unknowingly and unwillingly advertising on these shows, being secretly used by right-wing media companies to help fuel the conservative movement. And the backlash against these revelations has cost these companies millions. But it hasn't cost Rush a dime, yet. In 2008, he signed an 8-year contract worth over $400 million. When he renews that contract, the boycotts against Rush will cost him many millions of dollars, but boycotts won't force him off the air.
Those who hate Rush have been elated by the recent news that Cumulus might drop Limbaugh from its stations in 40 markets. This is a negotiating tactic between two right-wing media companies for the allocation of massive profits, and it's highly unlikely Cumulus will drop Rush. But if they do, it won't change anything. Rush will be picked up by other radio stations, and Cumulus will replace him with a cheaper alternative chosen from the hundreds of Rush imitators he has spawned.
The misguided efforts by some on the Left to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine will never succeed. Even if it was politically feasible to enact the Fairness Doctrine (it's not), and even if the Fairness Doctrine was used to target conservative talk radio (it never was, and never would be), then the Supreme Court would declare it unconstitutional (as it should be). Boycotts and censorship will not work. Even if Rush Limbaugh announces the end of his show today, the political and media movement he built will not go away.
What progressives need is not a movement to “hush Rush,” but a movement to amplify our own voices. We need progressive media like Amy Goodman and Rachel Maddow and The Daily Show. We need progressive social media and websites like Daily Kos to expand. We don't need a reverse mirror image of Rush Limbaugh's idiocy and bigotry to succeed. But we do need more progressive voices to be heard, and we are swimming upstream against the same pro-conservative biases that helped Rush Limbaugh succeed in the corporate media.
This won't be easy, and we won't have a single leader like Rush Limbaugh or success measured in tens of millions of dollars and millions of listeners to any particular show. But ultimately, imitating Rush Limbaugh the only path to defeating him.
Crossposted at DailyKos.