There was plentiful schadenfreude on the Internet this morning at the news that Rush Limbaugh (along with Sean Hannity) is apparently parting ways with the company that distributes his show on some 40 stations around the country. Limbaugh’s been a liberal bugbear for as long as he’s been a right-wing poster boy, and as such, the former are responding to news of his apparent downfall with glee. But really, this should be a source for celebration for everyone, because Limbaugh both personifies, and has at least partially responsible for, much of what is problematic about American politics in the 21st century.
Clearly, much of what liberals find objectionable about Limbaugh is perfectly valid — this is, after all, the man who gave us “Barack the Magic Negro,” who back in the 1970s told a black caller to his top 40 music show to “take that bone out of your nose and call me back,” and once claimed that “feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of American life.” He’s a shit-stirrer and a professional troll, and those who find such statements offensive will rejoice in his absence from the airwaves as much as devoted fans will lament it.
But then, it’s that exact polarization that speaks to a more fundamental reason why Limbaugh shouldn’t be missed: the type of political discourse in which he trades has been responsible for the sorts of deadlocks that have plagued Washington over the last few years. It’s easy to forget these days, but politics doesn’t have to be the sort of adversarial spectacle we’re used to seeing today, where the two sides behave like spoiled schoolchildren, where filibustering and other obstructiveness for the sake of political point-scoring take priority over effective governance. It’s been on the rise since the 1960s and 1970s, but really took hold during the 1980s — there’s some interesting statistical analysis here.
The world is undoubtedly a less straightforward place than it was in the years when polarization was at its lowest. Discontent tends to breed in adversity. But then, it’s how we deal with that discontent that’s important, and people like Limbaugh tap into and exploit it in the most populist and destructive of ways. In Australia, we call it dog-whistle politics, the sort of subtly nasty electioneering of which former PM John Howard was a master (and which his chief attack dog, Lynton Crosby, is now peddling for the Tories in the UK). It’s something of a cliché to say that electorates get the politicians they deserve, but equally, politicians get the electorates they deserve — the more they trade in institutionalized polarization, the more they perpetuate the problem.
No one’s arguing that Limbaugh and his ilk are the cause of this; they’re more a sort of pustule on the ass of American politics, a symptom of a more fundamental disease. But equally, the presence of Limbaugh’s divisive politics on primetime radio helps to legitimize the sort of negativity in which they’re rooted. Cheap politicking is a sort of coprophagic feedback loop, where newspapers and talk-show hosts feed the agenda of politicians, who feed it back to whichever media mouthpieces fit their particular agendas. In the end, it helps no one — we all end up eating shit, regardless of whether we’re Republican, Democrat or Monster Raving Loony Party.
One way or another, this loop has to be broken, otherwise all of America suffers — a divided, paralyzed legislature is good for precisely no one. Especially when we’re 13 years into a century that promises to be a whole lot more challenging for this country than the halcyon post-war years and the cultural and economic dominance that followed. If you believe its cultural mythology, America used to be good at getting stuff done. In its current state, it’s good at demagoguery and bewilderment.
It’s somewhat heartening, perhaps, that Limbaugh is getting canned because his ratings are declining, but one look at the list of his potential replacements — Mike Huckabee, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage — suggests that it’s Limbaugh himself that his listeners are tired of, not his politics. No doubt his employers, Atlanta-based Cumulus media, will cite the need to maximize ratings and profits for their shareholders as a reason for replacing him with someone similar, and in any case, Limbaugh is likely to surface on rival network WOR, so it’s not even clear who’s dumping who.
But still, let’s just imagine Cumulus actually will replace Limbaugh with someone who isn’t another identikit right-wing rabble-rouser. Let’s say the show becomes a place for genuinely constructive discussion instead of partisan mud-slinging. Ratings would certainly drop — anyone who’s spent time on the Internet knows that pejorative, polemic posts tend to draw a larger audience than positive, ambivalent, or otherwise intellectually complex ones. But again, that’s the world we currently live in, not the only possible world.
Pundits tend to underestimate the general public, to see them as a bunch of simpletons who only appreciate the lowest common denominator. Those more optimistic about human nature, like your correspondent, might argue that, in fact, we tend to adapt to our cultural surrounds in the same way that we adapt to any other environs. American political discourse doesn’t have to be like this, and indeed in the past it has been very different. It’s the way it is because we’ve chose to make it this way, or at least allowed it to devolve into what it’s become. And if we want this country to be able to function effectively, we need to stop shouting at one another and start listening to one another.
The divisive, us-against-you politics of Limbaugh and his ilk have no place on the left or the right. And as such, his absence from the airwaves — even temporarily — should be something that’s celebrated by Republicans and Democrats and everyone in between.